The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will face off in Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday with most of the attention on the Harbaugh brothers. However, once the actual game begins on the field, that focus should shift from the sidelines back onto the players who will ultimately decide the outcome of the game and crown the champions of the 2012 NFL season. A key determining factor of this game will be the 49ers’ ability to run and the Ravens’ ability to stop them. Everyone knows that the 49ers can run the ball, but nobody is certain that the Ravens can stop them.
At the very least, the Ravens’ have the personnel to win this matchup. Outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs are smart enough to stay disciplined on the outside, but it is the group of interior defensive linemen who will ultimately decide if the 49ers can run to victory. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick provides big plays and gets all of the media attention, but it is Frank Gore who sets the tone and establishes the initial momentum that allows Kaepernick to break free outside. Containing Kaepernick starts with stopping Gore, stopping Gore starts with winning in the trenches. Winning in the trenches requires the defensive line to beat more players than they typically do.
Against the 49ers’ option offense, the Atlanta Falcons trusted their defensive line to beat the 49ers’ interior offensive linemen while the edge defenders focused solely on Kaepernick. They were able to contain Kaepernick, but lacked the quality interior defensive play that was needed to stop Gore and LaMichael James. The Ravens will follow that exact gameplan, but will also expect better results. Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry worked inside for the Falcons in that game, but none of those players have the same size or run-stuffing ability as the Ravens’ defensive linemen.
Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Arthur Jones should see most of the defensive line snaps, as they are the Ravens’ four best run-stuffing defensive linemen. Ngata, Cody and Kemoeatu are all over 340 lbs, while Jones comes in at a notable 315 lbs. That size wasn’t available to the Falcons, nor did they have the added depth and diversity of Parnell McPhee. The Ravens’ situational depth at defensive line is incredible, and offers them the potential to shut down the 49ers’ rushing attack. That sheer size is key to their game plan because the option offense forces defenders to take on double teams and swallow more space.
If Ngata and company can occupy the 49ers’ offensive linemen, Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe will be able to shoot through those gaps to get to Gore.
Shutting down the run not only forces the game onto the shoulders of Kaepernick, but it also allows the Ravens’ pass rushers to be more decisive when chasing him down. McPhee played a lot in the Patriots game, but should only see time as a specialist pass rushing defensive end in third and long situations against the 49ers. With he, Ngata, Suggs and Kruger available, the Ravens have enough quality pass-rushers to pressure Kaepernick even in their nickel defenses. The 49ers have an excellent offensive line, but it’s not significantly better than the New England Patriots‘ unit who the Ravens got the better of in the AFC Championship game.
Of course, rushing the passer is only secondary to containing the run in this game.
While Lewis and the two Harbaughs get most of the media attention this week, it is a Ngata, Kemoeautu, McPhee, Jones, Cody, Suggs and Kruger who will play the biggest part in deciding this game.