The San Francisco 49ers bullied their way through the NFC playoffs using a hard-nosed running attack spear headed by the tough running of running back Frank Gore to go along with the home run ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he used his legs. If the Baltimore Ravens hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in the Harbaugh Bowl, they’ll need to find a way to slow down the heavy running game of San Francisco. Are they up to the task?
On the season, Baltimore was pretty average when it came to defending the run. They ranked No. 20 in the NFL against the run, allowing 122.8 yards per game. During their playoff run, they’ve given up even more, averaging 128.3 yards allowed on the ground, including 152 yards to the Indianapolis Colts, a team not known for their physical running style.
That is a concerning stat for the Ravens as they go up against the No. 4 rushing offense in football, led by Gore and Kaepernick, which create an inside-outside duo that has elevated their running attack. The one-two punch that Jim Harbaugh has unleashed by turning the offense over to his second year quarterback has been nearly unstoppable for the 49ers, especially in the playoffs.
After averaging 155.7 yards per game during the season, San Francisco exploded in the divisional round, rushing for 323 yards against the Green Bay Packers, led by Kaepernick’s record-setting 181-yard effort. Frank Gore also chipped in 119 yards, no big deal. Then in the NFC Conference Championship against the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco ran for a measly 149 yards, led by Gore’s 90-yard, two-touchdown day.
The Falcons committed to stopping Kaepernick, so he obliged by feeding Gore up the gut and gashed them all day long. The young quarterback didn’t force things to get himself carries following his breakout day against Green Bay, finishing the day with just a pair of carries for 21 yards. Kaepernick’s athleticism seems only to be outdone by his intelligent decision making during this playoff run, which spells trouble for defenses trying to stop the 49ers.
The Ravens, however, are not completely unfamiliar with the read-option attack San Francisco is going to bring to Super Sunday. On December 9, Baltimore traveled to Landover to take on Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. Mike Shanahan has developed a similar offense to what San Francisco has started running with Kaepernick under center to utilize the athletic talents of his quarterback.
The Ravens have positives and negatives to take away from that game. The positive: They were able to contain RGIII running the ball. holding him to just seven carries for 34 yards. The negative: Griffin was able to throw off the play-action for 242 yards, Alfred Morris carved up the defense on the ground for 129 yards and a touchdown and the Ravens lost the game 31-28 in overtime.
Now the challenge is even greater for Baltimore. Gore is a stronger runner than Morris, Kaepernick has shown an athleticism on par with or better than RGIII and the San Francisco offensive line is even stronger and more physical than Washington’s. They will need to hope they have improved dramatically since their early-December defeat to the Redskins if they hope to slow down Jim Harbaugh’s jumbo-running packages.
To do that, they’ll need huge games from their big nose tackles Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody. Disrupting the San Francisco offense right at the point of attack in the middle of the line will force the 49ers to bring double teams on the nose which will free up the Ravens’ interior linebackers Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo to make plays against the interior run of Frank Gore.
To stop the home-run threat of Kaepernick contained, Baltimore’s outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and Paul Kruger will have to stay disciplined and play the quarterback on the read-option, forcing Kaepernick to feed the ball inside where help is (hopefully) waiting. If they can’t contain both options with their front seven, Bernard Pollard may be forced to come down from his safety spot to play run support, leaving their cornerbacks on an island.
It will be the biggest challenge the Ravens’ defense has faced all season trying to contain the running attack of San Francisco. If they hope to close out their season with a Super Bowl parade, however, it’s a challenge they will have to overcome.