1. Carve Up the Middle
The 49ers are not an exotic defense that moves around. Coached by former Ravens’ assistant coach Vic Fangio, the San Francisco defense will stay stationary at the snap and normally show a two-deep coverage shell on the back end. A big reason for why the 49ers stay in zone is to let their ILBs cover the middle of the field. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have the speed and quickness to stay with receivers on inside routes, and they can control the action in their respective areas.
But behind those linebackers is where gold can be mined by the Ravens’ pass-catchers. There are big, gaping soft spots in the deep middle where the safeties are responsible for defending the pass. In particular, seam routes have killed the 49ers during the postseason.
Expect the Ravens to work the deep middle area with a combination of inside routes, much like they did against the Patriots in the second half of the AFC Championship. Quarterback Joe Flacco will need to rifle the ball into these spots to ensure that the hard-hitting safeties and backers don’t have enough time to break on and dislodge the football.
2. Boldin in the Slot
As we mentioned, the 49ers’ back end is a hard-hitting group. But in Anquan Boldin, the Ravens have the ultimate counter-punch. Boldin will be instrumental in this game on seam patterns where he can “box out” the defender for the football. This is the area of the field in which having a big, physical target can make all the difference for executing completions over the middle.
Two weeks ago, Atlanta used receiver Julio Jones primarily on inside routes and quarterback Matt Ryan felt comfortable letting Jones attack the ball in the air. Like Jones, Boldin has the size and strength to catch balls in traffic. The San Francisco corners had a tough time dealing with Jones’ size, and Boldin has the potential to have a similar impact, especially if Flacco looks for him early.
3. Get on Top of the Safeties
The San Francisco safeties—Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner—are Pro Bowl players who are outstanding at making tackles in the open field. However, their strength is moving downhill. They are not nearly as effective in coverage when they have to turn their hips and backpedal.
In spread formations, these safeties can be attacked downfield, especially if the Ravens are able to mix in some stack routes to either side of the formation. In these situations, if there are three receivers on one side of the field, at least one receiver will have a one-on-one look against Goldson or Whitner.
When the Ravens are in their three wide, one tight, single back formation, they should look to position either Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones inside to run right at Goldson or Whitner.
4. Stay Away from First Down Runs
The Ravens have a better chance to run the ball against San Francisco than people think. However, it won’t be easy on first down. The San Francisco front usually sells out against the run in these situations, and they make it a priority to get an offense in longer second-down conversion situations.
In fact, Atlanta tried to run the ball on first down and failed out of their pro set (base) formations. The Ravens’ best bet will be to pass on first down, and if anything, they should be able to catch the 49ers off-guard with some well-designed play-fakes.
Ultimately, the ground game might be more effective on second and third down, especially if the Ravens are able to get into some favorable down-and-distance situations.
One-on-One Matchup on Offense
Bryant McKinnie versus Aldon Smith
This matchup will be as much of a mental challenge as it will be a physical challenge for McKinnie. The 49ers will run some TE stunts and line games with both Smiths (Justin Smith at DE), and the veteran left tackle will need to identify the right rusher to pick up. Overall, Smith is long enough to extend past McKinnie and close the air space around him.
1. Assignment Football
For the Ravens, maintaining their gap integrity and playing with discipline is the only way they will be able to contain San Francisco’s pistol offense. If they make mistakes, they will give up more big plays than they have throughout the playoffs.
The onus will fall on the outside edge defenders to keep contain against Colin Kaepernick, and the inside defenders to handle the dive. No matter what happens, the edge defenders cannot crash inside to take the dive. If they do, Kaepernick will have wide open space to gallop past them.
For the inside defenders, they will have to be careful with their pursuit. The 49ers use a lot of traps and misdirection runs to get ILBs to move in the wrong direction. One move in the wrong direction and the edges will open up for tailbacks Frank Gore or LaMichael James to exploit.
2. Pollard the Joker
One way the Ravens can lessen the burden on their edge defenders is to use safety Bernard Pollard as a freelance roamer who can come downhill as an eighth defender in the box. Pollard’s ability to play in the box is an advantage, especially to potentially spy Kaepernick on quarterback keeps. If one of the OLBs slides in to pinch the line, Pollard would need to be able to fill the vacated gap when Kaepernick takes off.
In the passing game, keeping Pollard at the line can also help for controlling tight end Vernon Davis. Pollard should be used to bump Davis at the line. In a freelance role, Pollard can also turn and run with Davis if he diagnoses that Kaepernick will stay in the pocket.
3. Make Him Play the Guessing Game
Not only should Pollard be on the move between the box and the deep half of the field, but so should Ed Reed. Both safeties should be more active, especially in their pre-snap movement. For that matter, the entire defense should be dynamic in their pre-snap movement.
By shifting the defense around, Kaepernick will have a more difficult time discerning which coverage the Ravens are in. One of the biggest reasons for Kaepernick’s success, especially in the postseason, is that he has been able to read more obvious defensive looks that the Packers and Falcons gave before the snap. The Ravens need to buck that trend.
In the case of the Packers, their defensive front declared their blitz early and sold out quite a few times. The Falcons kept their safeties back and played off coverage. When Atlanta gave the second-year QB a deceptive look on third down, he hesitated and threw an incomplete pass in Davis’ direction.
Much like they did against the 49ers last year, the Ravens should show exotic looks and make the offensive line identify who is blitzing or who is bluffing, especially in third-down passing situations. More times than not, the moving defenders should try to drop into coverage and flood the passing lanes as opposed to blitzing, forcing Kaepernick to hold the ball and make decisions from the pocket.
4. Watch Out for James
James has turned into an explosive weapon for the 49ers in both the running game and the passing game. He has blinding speed to hit the edges and is shifty in space.
The 49ers do a nice job of getting him involved on screens and pitches to the outside. In turn, the San Francisco offensive linemen can get out into open space and do a nice job of springing him loose.
The Baltimore edge defenders need to be aware of James when he comes into the game. It is clear that when he is in the game, the play is going outside the numbers. The converging tacklers will need to be able to shed their blockers to bring him down, and they should be playing with more outside leverage to try and funnel the ball carrier back inside.
One-on-One Matchup on Defense
Terrell Suggs versus Joe Staley
The resurgent Defensive Player of the Year will be counted on as much to maintain contain in the running game as he will be counted on to attack the quarterback. As of late, Suggs looks to have regained his get off, and his ability to disengage will be crucial against the Pro Bowl left tackle. Staley plays with a strong base and it is tough to move him around once he is set. He is also an outstanding open-field run blocker who plays through the whistle.