Though Colin Kaepernick has captivated the NFL with his electric dual-threat quarterbacking skills over the past two months, the Niners, at their core, remain a power-running team.
The Falcons found out the hard way in the NFC title game, as they oversold to shut down Kaepernick’s legs on the perimeter, leaving themselves susceptible to Frank Gore repeatedly gashing them up the middle.
Gore is coming off one of his finest seasons, in which he piled up 1,214 yards and eight TDs on 258 carries. He has been equally effective in the postseason, with 44 carries for 209 yards and three scores.
Aiding Gore’s great production is rookie gamebreaker LaMichael James, who, since becoming the Niners’ primary backup in Week 14, has given San Francisco a changeup to Gore that consistently keeps defenses on their toes.
If Gore is the Niners’ thunder, hammering out tough yards in between the tackles and lowering his pads on second-level defenders, James is their lightning. His 15-yard scoring sprint in the second quarter against the Falcons, which initiated San Francisco’s methodical erasing of a 17-point deficit, illustrated James’ instant acceleration and ability to take the corner.
If the contrasting styles of Gore and James weren’t enough to contend with, the duo runs behind the most talented offensive line in football. And making the Niners’ run game even more difficult to defend is the creativity and diversity of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme. He throws pistol formations, heavy sets, unbalanced lines and a healthy dose of option plays at opponents, often keeping his group one step ahead of the opposition.
The opposition on Super Bowl Sunday, the Ravens, believes they are up to the challenge of going toe-to-toe with San Francisco.
Baltimore has hit its stride defensively of late, and while the return of future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis from a triceps injury has had a profound effect – the biggest perhaps being from an emotional standpoint – arguably no player has been as destructive and as instrumental to the Ravens’ postseason defensive surge than DT Haloti Ngata.
Finally healthy after dealing with shoulder and knee injuries much of the season, Ngata is back to doing what he does best: wrecking offensive game plans by collapsing the pocket and chewing up blockers, allowing Lewis and the rest of the Baltimore LB corps to track down the football.
Lewis certainly doesn’t have the range he once did, but he can still be extremely effective coming downhill and laying the lumber. Fellow inside ‘backer Dannell Ellerbee, in the midst of a career season, is another ferocious striker, who not only shuts down the run, but is extremely effective in coverage. Ellerbee vacated his coverage assignment, Aaron Hernandez, to come up with a huge interception of Tom Brady off a tipped pass in the AFC championship game. Both Gore and James, despite not being critical parts of the San Francisco passing game this postseason, are fully capable receivers.
Patrolling the edges for the Ravens are reigning defensive MVP Terrell Suggs (LOLB) and impressive rookie Courtney Upshaw (ROLB). Suggs, who sets the edge nearly as well as he harasses QBs, is playing his best football at the right time. After tallying just 22 tackles and two sacks in eight regular-season contests, Suggs has piled up 19 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in three postseason games. His explosiveness and comfort level have increased dramatically since first returning from a ruptured Achilles back in October.
Paired with Ngata, NT Ma’ake Kemoeatu gives the Ravens nearly 700 pounds of mass in the middle of the defensive line. The Ravens will need every bit of that brawn to battle San Francisco’s massive interior offensive line. Second-year player Pernell McPhee (DLE) rounds out the Ravens’ front seven. The speedy McPhee is known for his pass-rushing prowess, but his quickness will be needed to help keep James and Gore from gaining the corner.
This matchup has everything a true NFL purist could hope for: toughness, size, physicality and great relentlessness. The 49ers want to hammer the football with Gore, sprinkling in dashes of James’ breathtaking open-field speed. The Ravens have the physicality to counter the Niners’ haymakers; they must stay balanced and disciplined in order to avoid getting burned by San Francisco’s varied rushing attack.