Sunday's matchup in Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers promises to be an intriguing contest, as each coaching staff probes for weaknesses in the opponent to exploit. This is a weekly occurrence in the National Football League, but with two evenly-matched teams on the biggest stage, the in-game coaching adjustments will be critical to the outcome.
A closer look at the Ravens and 49ers finds more similarities than differences. Starting on the defensive side of things, both franchises have swarming, aggressive squads intent on stopping the opponent's offense. The 49ers and Ravens both run a 3-4 defense. The 49ers have an imposing trio of linemen, highlighted by defensive tackle Justin Smith. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (not related) led the team this season in quarterback sacks with 19.5. The man in the middle is linebacker Patrick Willis, with a tough secondary behind him to defend against an aerial assault.
The Niners defense ranked third in the NFL this season, Baltimore ranked 17th. But the Ravens' Ray Lewis brings inspiration and experience.
Baltimore's defensive prowess is well-documented, led by the 17-year veteran linebacker who is retiring after Sunday's game. Lewis follows in a long line of fierce NFL linebackers down through the years, including Sam Huff, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, and Lawrence Taylor. On Wednesday, the University of Miami product talked about his final goal in football.
"The only thing on my mind, honestly, is getting my teammates to touch the Lombardi Trophy. The retirement will take care of itself. That is one thing about this game for me. When the clock hits triple zeros, no matter what happens, that will be my last ride. If there was any greater stage to do it on, it would be this stage. So, it is an awesome ride for me,” Lewis told reporters in New Orleans.
The Ravens also use a 3-4 defense, with Terrell Suggs joining Lewis at linebacker. Baltimore also has a ball-hawking group of defensive backs, including hard-hitting safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.
On special teams, it's been a up and down season for San Francisco placekicker David Akers. The usually reliable Akers enjoyed a stellar career with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the 49ers before last season. However, an abdominal injury that required surgery has led to a subpar 2012 campaign for the former Pro Bowler, who made only 29 of 42 field goals this year. The Ravens, who fell short of the Super Bowl last year after kicker Billy Cundiff missed a short field goal in the AFC Championship Game, turned to rookie Justin Tucker to handle placekicking duties this season. All he's done is make 30 out of 33 field goal attempts in 2012.
Moving to the offensive side of the ball, both the Ravens and 49ers feature ball control with quick strike capabilities. The biggest difference is at quarterback. San Francisco starts second-year man Colin Kaepernick, who replaced the injured Alex Smith midway through this season. Kaepernick has tremendous running ability, with a strong throwing arm. In the seven games he started, Kaepernick completed more than 62 percent of his passes.
Though he's young, the Nevada product understands that long-time San Francisco fans are used to their team playing in the Super Bowl.
“It’s a great opportunity to get a win and to bring back the legacy to San Francisco that great teams and great quarterbacks have before,” Kaepernick told 49ers.com.
Baltimore has Joe Flacco as its field general. The even-keeled Delaware product doesn't run as well as Kaepernick, but might have a stronger arm to throw the deep pass. Flacco threw for more than 3,800 yards and had 22 touchdowns in 2012. The Ravens, just like their first Super Bowl squad in 2001, are better known for their defense. But Flacco knows it takes an entire team effort to win.
“You don’t get to this point without having a good football team and that’s in all three phases. This team has had such a great defense for many years, such big faces on that side of the ball. That’s what we’re known for. Us guys on the other side, we don’t have any problem with that. We know that in order to win football games we have to go out there and do our job, Flacco told assembled media Thursday in New Orleans.
Flacco and the Baltimore offense relies on a stout running game that features Ray Rice, who ran for more than 1,100 yards this season and is a better than average receiver coming out of the backfield. The 49ers can grind it out on the ground with franchise career rushing leader Frank Gore, who gained more than 1,200 yards during the regular season. Rookie LaMichael James can spell Gore with more speed and shifty moves out of the backfield.
Both quarterbacks enjoy talented receivers. San Francisco boasts Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes for more than 1,100 yards this year. Super Bowl veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and tight end Vernon Davis also make significant contributions. Baltimore can counter with leading receiver Anquan Boldin (65 receptions, 921 yards), Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and tight end Dennis Pitta.
Getting back to the head coaches, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and younger brother Jim of the 49ers both played football in college. Jim later played quarterback in the NFL for 15 years on four teams. John went immediately into coaching after college, working for their father Jack at Western Michigan.
John Harbaugh has been in the post-season playoff for each of his five years at Baltimore. Jim Harbaugh is only in his second year as head coach, but took the 49ers to the NFC title game last year. For both, this is their first trip to the Super Bowl.
Answering a reporter's question Thursday, Jim Harbaugh reflected on what it would mean to beat his brother's team in the biggest game of the year.
“If we are to win this game, it’s going to be earned. That would be the adjective I would use. This is a tremendous Baltimore Ravens team offensively, defensively and special teams."