Super Bowl XLVII X-FactorsSaturday, February 02, 2013
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Sunday's game is long on storylines, as you probably know by now. Coaching brothers square off for the first time in Super Bowl history. Bold late-season moves to change quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Distractions that won't distract at all, like deer-antler spray. Joe Flacco's contract. Randy Moss' all-time wide receiver rankings.
The media down in New Orleans puts a magnifying glass on everything potentially, remotely relevant for Sunday's game. Here, I'll try to stick to football. These eight X-factors can each have a major impact on the Super Bowl XLVII result.
1. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
Although Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has improved in this area recently, he has a historical tendency to hold onto the football too long in his dropbacks. Analysts long debated why. The receivers weren't separating. Their routes took too long to develop. Bad habits by Flacco. Or perhaps it was a function of ex-playcaller Cam Cameron's archaic offense. Whatever the case, getting pressure on Flacco before deep threats Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones find time to come open will be a primary concern for 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in Super Bowl XLVII.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive end Ray McDonald can be pressure players in spurts, but the Smiths are the foundation of Fangio's pass rush. Aldon plays end on passing-down snaps, lining up adjacent to interior tackle Justin. Theoretically, the Smiths work in unison, passing off double teams to each other en route to 22.5 combined sacks during the first 13 regular season games. Justin tore his left triceps tendon in Week 15 against the Patriots, however, and the Smiths have netted zero sacks in the ensuing five games. Diminished pass rush has put stress on San Francisco's secondary. And the Niners' defensive backs have not handled it particularly well.
Since Justin tore the triceps just before halftime in Foxboro, the Niners have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 116-of-182 throws (63.7 percent) for 1,416 yards (7.78 YPA), and an 11:5 TD-to-INT ratio with a 12th score on a Tom Brady goal-line plunge. Justin and Aldon have defended the run well, but the NFL is a passing league. And a sack for a seven-yard loss is a far more crushing blow to an offense than "stuffing" a running back for a one- or two-yard gain.
2. Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs.
Forget Colin Kaepernick's running ability for a minute. I have watched every Kaepernick throw this season, and would put his velocity and downfield arm power up against any passer in the league. His movement inside the pocket seems to get better with every start. Kaepernick's ball placement has come an incredibly long way since Nevada. He routinely drops vertical throws in the bucket.
If there is one nit to pick with Kaepernick the pocket passer, it's his habit of becoming a bit frenetic with bodies around him. Kaepernick tends to play hurried under duress, which can lead to wild throws -- he usually misses high -- and bad decisions. Ala San Francisco's Smiths, Kruger and Suggs are the backbone of Baltimore's pass rush. Unlike the Smiths, Kruger and Suggs have done for me lately with 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 13 combined QB hits through three postseason contests. The Smiths have hit the quarterback twice in their two playoff games.
3. The "change-of-pace" backs.
For Baltimore, it's Bernard Pierce. For San Francisco, LaMichael James. The Ravens and 49ers both employ balanced-to-run-heavy offenses, and their backfields go beyond Frank Gore and Ray Rice. Pierce has ripped off 453 yards on his last 75 carries (6.04 YPC), and he hasn’t fumbled once on 143 rookie-year touches. A non-factor before veteran change-up back Kendall Hunter's Week 12 Achilles' tear, James has rushed just 35 times including the playoffs, but is averaging 5.14 yards per carry and possesses house-call long speed, if the blocking gives him room to run.