Which Team Has the Edge at Every Position in the Harbaugh Bowl?
Which Team Has the Edge at Every Position in the Harbaugh Bowl?
On Sunday night the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens will face off against each other in New Orleans, Louisiana for Super Bowl XLVII. With two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, this game will be looked at in every way possible. Breaking down and comparing the teams position by position is one of those ways.
The 49ers and Ravens are two very similar teams. Heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII contest, the teams look to be very close on paper. The difference in this game could be one player on one team playing just a little better than the guy who plays the same position on the opposite team. In a close matchup like this, that could be the difference between becoming a Super Bowl champion and losing your last game.
There will be an edge heading into this game at each and every position. In some positions that edge is clear where one team is just better than the other. In other instances it’s not all that clear. For those positions it may come down to which team has been playing better at that position throughout the postseason.
This slideshow will go though each position and compare those players on each team. In analyzing the players of each position on the field, one team will come out with an edge in each of those positions.
Despite his inconsistency, Joe Flacco is still a pocket passer. This year he made big improvements in his game and had a much better season. As for the postseason, Flacco has been spectacular. In a postseason that saw Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady, Flacco has had the highest quarterback rating of 114.7.
Colin Kaepernick has been the surprise of the season in the NFL. After taking over for an injured Alex Smith Kaepernick arguably did better and has not relinquished the job. The problem with Kaepernick is that he is a running quarterback. While he can throw, it’s his legs that do most of the damage. Now he’s going up against one of the best defenses in the league and they’ll be ready if Kaepernick decides to run.
Flacco has been the best quarterback in the league this year and has been a typical quarterback. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s success is at least partly due to a trait that doesn’t usually work long in the NFL. The defense’s in the eventually learn how to stop a running quarterback and the Ravens have had two weeks. So the edge at quarterback has to go to Baltimore.
Both of these teams have very strong running games. Baltimore’s Ray Rice and San Francisco’s Frank Gore have been premier NFL backs over the past few years and this season is no different. Gore ranked 10th in the league in rushing this season finishing with 1,214 yards or 75.9 yards a game. Rice finished the year in 11th with 1,143 yards or 71.4 yards a game.
The decision for this position will have to come down to current form and that decision goes to Gore. Despite Rice’s 131 yard performance against the Broncos in the divisional playoff game, he only gained 48 yards on the ground against the Patriots in the AFC championship game. Meanwhile Gore backed up his 119 yard performance against the Green Bay Packers with a 90 yard day against the Atlanta Falcons.
The difference between these teams at wide receiver is depth. Both teams have a star go-to receiver with Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin and San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree but who is behind them? Who can you go to if you’re go-to guy is covered? That’s where the edge lies.
After Crabtree the 49ers have several receivers who have had experience in key roles in the past. Both Mario Manningham and Randy Moss have played key roles on conference champions. As for the Ravens, the only receiver after Boldin is Torrey Smith. And behind him there’s not much experience. The 49ers even have a couple of tight ends they can trust which is more than the Ravens can say. So at the wide receiver position, the edge goes to the 49ers.
This has been a breakout year for Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta. Little was known about the third year player out of BYU at the beginning of the season but Pitta has gone over 44.5 yards and over 3.5 receptions in five of the last six games. He’s one of Joe Flacco’s favorite receivers this season that probably won’t change Sunday.
Vernon Davis was having a pretty big year when Alex Smith was under center but it hasn’t been the same since Colin Kapernick took over. Despite his huge game last week catching 5 passes for 106 yards, Davis only had one reception in each of the previous five games. More than likely the game in Atlanta was a one-off experience and it’ll be back to one reception games for Davis starting Sunday.
The fact that Pitta is a preferred receiver and Davis is usually an afterthought in the 49ers passing game, the edge has to go to Pitta. Although, judging by last week’s performance, the 49ers could go to Davis again Sunday and if so, Davis would have the edge as he is a better receiver than Pitta.
While these two offensive lines couldn’t have looked much more different earlier in the year, today they are very similar. The 49ers offensive line has been a model of consistency. Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati were selected as Pro Bowl starters. They are joined by center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone, and right tackle Anthony Davis which rounds out an impressive group.
The Ravens offensive line struggled for much of the year as they tried to find the right fit. Well, it’s the postseason and they found that fit just in time. First they moved Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and replaced him on the blind side with Bryant McKinnie. Kelechi Osemele, who was on the right side, slid into the middle and to the other side of center Matt Birk where he sits at left guard. The group is rounded out with Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda. They’ve used this lineup for three games now and it’s worked beautifully.
These are two offensive lines that are playing at their peak but the edge will have to go to the 49ers. Nothing against the Ravens new look, they’ve played great, but the experience that the 49ers offensive line has had is what gives them the slight nod. Other than experience, these are now to very evenly matched lines.
The biggest difference between these two defensive lines is seen in run defense. The ability to stopping the run causes several problems for an opposing offense and makes the rest of the defense’s job much easier. And when it comes to run defense, there is a clear difference between the Ravens and 49ers.
The 49ers had a strong 2012 stopping the run as they finished the season ranked 4th giving up just 94.2 yards a game. Interestingly enough, that was actually a decline from 2011 when the 49ers had the league’s best run defense giving up just 77.3 yards a game.
The Ravens have gotten significantly worse against the run. In 2011 the Ravens gave up 92.6 yards a game against the run which ranked second in the league only to the 49ers. But 2012 has been miserable as they’ve given up 122.8 yards a game on the ground which ranks 20th in the league. Therefore, the edge on defensive line will have to go to the 49ers.
Neither of these teams is more impressive anywhere on the field than they are at linebacker. Both of these teams probably have the best linebacker duo in the league other than the Chicago Bears. For the Ravens, it’s Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. For the 49ers, it’s Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.
Lewis and Willis are two of the game’s best middle linebackers. The only major difference between the two is age. While Willis is 28-years old and still going strong, the 37-year old Lewis has already announced his retirement as he heads into the final game of his hall of fame career.
The edge as it pertains to this comparison is on the outside and between Suggs and Smith. Suggs hasn’t been fully healthy all year and, while he’s been steadily improving, hasn’t returned to last year’s effectiveness that saw him win defensive player of the year. On the other hand Smith, who is in just his second season, has taken off recording 19.5 sacks in the regular season which was second this year behind J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
So for this position the edge will have to be given to the 49ers. Smith’s production in 2012 has been stunning and Suggs has simply not been able to return to the player seen last year after injury. The difference between those two players is too great to overcome.
Both the Ravens and 49ers have excellent defensive backfields but the edge in this comparison will have to go to the ball hawks from Baltimore. Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, and Tarell Brown make a fearsome foursome to throw against but there not as much fear of a turnover as there is with the Ravens. At least there wasn't this year.
The Ravens defensive backfield is full of players looking to take the ball the other way. Ed Reed and Cary Williams had been playing under Chuck Pagano who enjoyed running a fast defense with blitzes that created takeaways in bunches, and got takeaways in bunches. To add to that, the Ravens brought in Corey Graham who had previously played under Lovie Smith in Chicago, a team that thrives off takeaways. So the idea of creating takeaways at every opportunity was no change.
While the 49ers have a strong defensive backfield, the takeaways make the difference. Rogers had six interceptions in 2011 but 2012 he just had one and dropped others. Meanwhile Reed and Williams each had four interceptions this season and Graham chipped in with two of his own. The takeaways are what makes the difference and gives the Ravens the edge.
Both of these teams have strong punters. San Francisco’s punter Andy Lee had a slightly better year than Baltimore’s punter Sam Koch averaging one yard more. Looking at current form, both punters’ averages have dropped in the postseason though one has dropped more than the other.
This year Lee ranked fifth in the league in punting averaging 48.1 yards a kick. Koch, in comparison, ranked 12th averaging 47.1 yards a kick. With such close comparison, maybe a look at current form will differentiate the two. Both punters’ averages have dipped in the postseason. Lee’s average dropped to 47.3 and Koch dropped to 45.9. Since Lee had the higher average in the regular season and dropped a little less than Koch in the postseason, the punting edge has to go to San Francisco.
There really is no comparison when it comes to these two teams and field goal kicking. The 49ers kicker is an experienced kicker who has been one of the best in the league over the past 12 years. The Ravens kicker is a rookie who signed after last year’s kicker, Billy Cundiff, missed a game tying field goal in the AFC championship game.
It would seem like Akers would be the better kicker but not this year. Tucker has been outstanding hitting 29 of 31 in the regular season for a 90.9% field goal percentage. Meanwhile, Akers has had the worst year of his career. He’s only hit 29 of 42 kicks for a 69% field goal percentage. It hasn’t been much different in the postseason. Tucker has hit 2 of 2 including the game winning field goal in Denver in double overtime. Akers also has attempted two field goals this postseason but he missed one of those. So when it comes to place kicking, the edge obviously goes to Tucker and the Ravens.
When it comes to returning kickoffs, no team was better this year than the Baltimore Ravens. During the season they averaged 27.3 yards. When their primary returner, Jacoby Jones, received the ball he brought it back 30.7 yards on average. He also returned two for touchdowns which includes a 108 yard return. Conversely the 49ers ranked 12th in the league this year in returning kickoffs averaging 24.8 yards a return. Unlike the Ravens who had one primary returner, the 49ers used LaMichael James, Kyle Williams, and Ted Ginn for the job.
In the postseason it’s been different. Jones has only averaged 17.3 yards this postseason which is a decrease of 13.4 yards, a significant difference, and hasn’t reached the end zone. The 49ers on the other hand, have decided on using James as their primary returner this postseason and he has produced. Despite a drop in return average, James is still averaging 21.8 yards a return.
When it comes to returning punts neither team has a star. Ginn returned most of the punts for the 49ers in the regular season and averaged 10.2 yards a return with his longest being just 31 yards. Jones handled punts in addition to kickoffs and was more successful. Averaging 9.2 yards a return, his longest was a 63-yard touchdown return. In this postseason both Jones and Ginn have continued their punt return duties. Jones has returned six punts for 82 yards and Ginn has returned two punts for 20 yards. Neither has reached the end zone.
The edge for returning will have to go to Jones and the Ravens. While they haven’t shown much in the postseason, they were very impressive leading the league in the regular season. And Jones’ 108 yard return proves that no matter where the ball is kicked, he can take it the distance.