Rinse & Repeat
The San Francisco 49ers are good. They are very good. At 10-1, they are the best team in the NFC and, along with the Ravens, have a legitimate claim to the title of NFL’s Best Team. The Niners win with a dominant defense and a run game that averages more yards per game than every team besides Baltimore. In more ways than one, the teams that take the field at one o’clock in M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday are quite similar.
When a team is 10-1 through 12 weeks, there is a lot that can be gleaned from that team’s one loss. The 49ers’ sole loss this season came in a clash with the division rival Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football. The 49ers missed a potential game-winning field goal and went on to lose when the Seahawks were successful on a field goal attempt of their own with just seconds left in overtime. On the way to handing the Niners their first loss of the season, Seattle ran the ball 34 times for 147 yards.
While arguably more talented as a unit, the 49ers defense has some real similarities to the Rams defense the Ravens just saw. They have an incredibly talented defensive line that is arguably the best pass rushing front four in football and are better against the pass than they are against the run. More specifically though, the Niners are on the verge of breaking records as a pass defense. They’re currently allowing just 136.9 passing yards per game and have had as many interceptions (11) as they have pass touchdowns allowed.
Against the run though, San Francisco ranks 19th and has allowed at least 100 yards rushing in nine of eleven games.
In the same way they steamrolled the Rams by running right at their big name defensive line, the Ravens should once again lean heavily on the run against the 49ers on Sunday.
Help with Bosa
It didn’t take very long for Nick Bosa to show the world exactly why the 49ers made him the second overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The rookie DE from Ohio State is ranks 12th in the NFL with 8.0 sacks and has forced two fumbles so far this season. Those impressive numbers, coupled with how generally disruptive he’s been for the Niners, have made Bosa a near lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year and a front runner for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
While Niners defensive coordinator Robert Salah will move Bosa up and down the line, he can most often be found on the defensive right matched up against the opponent’s LT. Bosa, extremely well built at 270 pounds, is his team’s best pure pass rusher, but he can also certainly hold his own against the run.
On pass plays, the Ravens should be giving Ronnie Stanley frequent help with someone like Pat Ricard or Nick Boyle. In the run game, Bosa should see a double team when the ball is going his way. On his best days, Bosa has the rare ability to be an absolute game wrecker.
If they hope to have success against the NFL’s number one defense on Sunday, the Ravens offense need to give Bosa plenty of extra attention.
Have the Hot Route Ready
Although the Ravens should lean heavily on the rushing attack on Sunday, there are times when they’ll have to throw the football against the Niners’ top-ranked pass defense. San Francisco does not have the best pass defense in the NFL because they’re loaded in the secondary. They start Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. Witherspoon is a talented young CB, but nobody besides Sherman is anywhere near being a household name.
The defensive line is what makes the 49ers pass defense truly special. Their current starting four features three former first-round picks (Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead). If that’s not enough, the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Solomon Thomas, comes off the bench in rotation. If you’re still not satisfied, Dee Ford, another former 1st round selection who was acquired from the Chiefs in the offseason, may be returning from a hamstring injury this week.
When the Ravens throw on Sunday, Lamar Jackson may need to get the ball out in a hurry. Even though Ronnie Stanley is playing like the best LT in the NFL and Orlando Brown Jr. has been exceptional, there will be times when the Niners get through. A “hot receiver” is the WR who is designated and ready to run a quick route in the case of an obvious blitz or if the protection breaks down immediately. A hot route is often a slant, swing or screen. Without confidence in a hot route, Jackson may have to throw the ball away, take a sack or be forced into a dangerous throw. Taking sacks and getting behind the chains could really impact the normal flow of the Ravens offense in a game where Baltimore can’t afford many mistakes.
When Lamar Jackson comes to the line on Sunday, he needs to feel confident in his “hot receiver” every time.
After the Ravens, the 49ers have the best rushing attack in the NFL. For the 2019 season, Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has adopted a strategy similar to the one used by John Harbaugh, Greg Roman and the Ravens. San Francisco leans heavily on their running game, boasts one of the best blocking TEs in the game, and uses a stable of running backs. If they had a QB like Lamar Jackson, the two offenses would look eerily similar.
If you watch the Ravens offense for any period of time, it quickly becomes evident that Patrick Ricard is an absolutely crucial piece. For what the Ravens try to do on offense, having a 285-lb FB who moves as well as Ricard does is huge. Ricard lines up as a traditional FB, blocks as a third or fourth TE on the end of the line and even catches the occasional pass. If you watch Ricard, he will often lead you right to where the play is going. He’s not on the field as a decoy. He’s out there to be a hammer at the point of attack.
Former Raven Kyle Juszczyk plays that role for the 49ers. Considered by some, including myself, to be the best FB in the NFL, Juszczyk is the key to the 49ers offense. He’s an incredible lead blocker, lines up next to George Kittle as an extra TE and sometimes splits out wide to be used as a mismatch against LBs in the passing game. When watching the 49ers on film, it’s frankly incredible to see how often Juszczyk can be used to find the football.
If the Ravens follow Juszczyk on Sunday, he’ll lead them right to the football.
Let Thomas Roam
Earl Thomas is at his best when he’s allowed to freelance. His years of experience playing at an elite level on the biggest stages have made him extremely more valuable when he’s allowed to read a play and, even if it means taking some risks, react accordingly. After a somewhat slow start to the season as he acclimated to Wink Martindale’s system, Thomas has stepped up his game and the Ravens defense has benefited enormously.
The Niners, while known for their run game this season, are owners of the 14th ranked passing attack in the NFL. George Kittle is a serious handful over the middle of the field and Jimmy Garoppolo has a bevy of WRs at his disposal. Rookie WR Deebo Samuel was the 49ers 2nd round pick in this year’s draft and is starting to blossom. Marquise Goodwin is a former Olympian who ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and 2018 2nd round pick Dante Pettis is certainly not lacking in the speed department. Kendrick Bourne has been a much bigger contributor than he was expected to be at the start of the season and the 49ers gave up a 3rd and 4th round pick to acquire Emmanuel Sanders before the trade deadline.
Thomas can have a big impact on the 49er’s passing attack because of what they like to do. The 49ers like using their speedy WRs like Pettis, Goodwin and now Sanders to stretch the defense vertically. With the opponent’s safeties occupied deep, Kittle can find soft spots in the middle of the field and WRs like Samuel and Bourne can run in-breaking and crossing routes. With the ability to improvise, Thomas might have a few more chances than usual to get his third interception of the season. The film on Garoppolo shows, particularly on crossing routes, some inconsistencies with his ball placement. He’s tied for 5th worst in the NFL with 10 interceptions on the year and had two poorly placed balls go off the hands of Seahawks defenders in just one series late in the Seattle game.
If Earl Thomas can jump a crossing route or steal an underthrown deep ball from the 49ers, he could change the course of the game on Sunday.
Go for the Strip Sack
The Ravens pass rush has been a very interesting study over the course of the 2019 season. By some advanced metrics, they were one of the best teams in the NFL at getting to, hitting, knocking down and generally disrupting the opposing QB. Yet by sacks, the only pass rush metric that matters to most people, they were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the league. Even with a recent uptick in sacks, the Ravens find themselves tied for 24th in the league for sacks. Their 25 is barely half the sacks tallied by the top ranked Niners defense.
Jimmy Garoppolo has been sacked 22 times through 11 games. Allowing just two sacks per game has the 49ers tied with the Ravens for 9th in the NFL in sacks surrendered. Although he hasn’t been sacked much, Garoppolo is tied for 3rd worst in the NFL in fumbles this season. I expect that the Ravens will get two or three chances at getting strip sack on Sunday and Garoppolo is as likely as any QB in the NFL to lose control of the football when they do.
The Niners are the best team in the NFC. Their clash with the Ravens game at M&T Bank on Sunday will decide whether or not they’re also considered the best team in the NFL.
A big turnover on a strip sack that could lead to a scoop and score might be the play that makes the difference.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
49ers TE George Kittle versus Ravens CB Jimmy Smith
Niners TE George Kittle is the best TE in the NFL. He’s a nuanced route runner, a top-tier blocker, and he’s deadly after the catch. He’s the closest thing to Rob Gronkowski that the NFL has right now. As with all the best modern TEs, Kittle is an absolute matchup nightmare. If you’re good enough to keep up with him in pass coverage, he has the size advantage. If you can match his physicality, there’s no way you can consistently stick with him in coverage.
While you can use disguised coverages and double teams to limit him, there are times when a Ravens defender will have to play him in man coverage on Sunday. The Ravens would be insane to expect to successfully cover him with a LB. Earl Thomas is an option, but he’s better served playing in the deep middle of the field to protect against speed over the top from Pettis and Goodwin. Strong safeties are often given the task, but using Chuck Clark would take away from the roles he already plays all over the defense.
This is where the Ravens’ unmatched CB depth comes into play. With Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters manning the two outside CB spots, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith are free to be used in rotation or in specific matchups. Smith has the best combination of cover ability, size and speed of the remaining players on the Ravens defense and is, in my mind, the Ravens’ best option for covering Kittle.
Kittle is a mismatch against just about everyone that tries to cover him one on one, but Smith is the Ravens’ best option for preventing a huge game from the 49ers TE on Sunday.