The Ravens have the same look as the past two Super Bowl champions. Both Green Bay and the New York Giants were struggling in early December and the last thing which would have crossed anyone’s mind is these were Super Bowl champions, let alone contenders.
After losses to Washington and Denver, Baltimore looked they were ready for the slaughterhouse and would be swiftly moved out of the postseason. However, the courage of head coach Jim Harbaugh to fire his offensive coordinator and reshuffle his offensive line dramatically improved the offense. On defense, Ray Lewis refused to go quietly and willed his teammates to raise their level of play and at several key positions this worked and his team is in New Orleans as 3.5-point underdogs.
The Ravens need a quick start to seize the momentum. Baltimore has only lead at halftime once in their trio of playoff games, before taking over in the second half. In each case, the Ravens more physical style of play forced their opponents into mistakes that were out of character. Since San Francisco is their equal when it comes to physicality, it would seem unlikely they would wear down the 49ers.
How Baltimore takes an early lead is turning Joe Flacco loose. The Ravens throwing offense have developed into a well-proportioned passing tree. Torrey Smith is terrific deep threat (especially out the numbers); Anquan Bolden can catch anything over the middle even when covered by using his body as a shield and his amazing hands. Tight end Dennis Pitta has been wearing out underneath coverages and when all else fails, Ray Rice is the ideal check-down threat.
Because of the protection the Flacco has been receiving from his offensive line, he’s had time to find the open receiver and the Niners secondary has been tagged for 322 yards per game in the postseason and five touchdown passes. If the Ravens can build a 14-0 lead, they can dictate the tempo. Granted, San Francisco overcame a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta, but nobody is going to confuse the Falcons defense with Baltimore’s.
Defensively, John Harbaugh’s bunch has to react to what they see, not what they think might happen. In talking to a freelance scout, he conveyed to me San Francisco’s read option is more about illusion than magic. He said based on line blocking, at least 80 percent of the 49ers read option offense is predetermined despite its appearance. When they go pure R-O, Colin Kaepernick takes his key from the outside linebacker. When he places the pigskin in the belly of his running back, if the linebacker holds his ground, it’s a straight handoff. If he makes a move towards the runner, Kaepernick pulls the ball out and heads for the vacated area.
The Ravens have to maintain discipline, plug the middle with its defensive line and hit Kaepernick every time (legally) they can to make him want to hand the ball off.
Baltimore was able to hold New England scoreless in the second half by keeping Tom Brady guessing what kind of defense they were actually playing. Though Kaepernick has been remarkable, he’s still only had nine starts. The Ravens defenders have to make the young quarterback think about what he is seeing instead of reacting.
While Kaepernick is mostly recognized for his running ability, it is his passing which has made San Fran truly dangerous of offense. How Baltimore makes the second year QB a thinker is playing more man coverage against Michael Crabtree (his favorite target) and making sure Ed Reed is in the neighborhood of TE Vernon Davis. While it sounds ludicrous, the Ravens should take their chances with Randy Moss to make big plays against them. Though Moss has helped the Niners offense, to force him being targeted 10 times is probably a win for the underdog. In addition, make TE Delanie Walker an outlet to throw to, since his drop rate was the worst in the NFL for his position.
Baltimore is on a roll, it will not intimidated and relishes the role of the underdog and can certainly win this contest.