Super Bowl XLVII X-FactorsSaturday, February 02, 2013
4. These are two-tight end teams.
Baltimore and San Francisco both go two deep at tight end, making frequent use of jumbo sets out of which a vast array of plays can be run. It can be a passing or running formation. Dennis Pitta is the Ravens' catch-first "move" tight end, often going in motion or lining up as an H-back. Ed Dickson spends more time on the line blocking. For San Francisco, Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis share time lining up on both sides of the line of scrimmage as "in-line" tight ends.
The 49ers' offensive goal is to get their playmakers into space. The Ravens, on the other hand, are a decidedly vertical-pass team and count on their playmakers to beat man coverage downfield. Pitta, Baltimore's best tight end, is primarily a receiver. Davis, the 49ers' top tight end, spends most of his snaps as a blocker, sacrificing himself for others. Despite the fact that both Baltimore and San Francisco use two-tight end packages in heavy doses, they serve different purposes.
5. Ray-Ray's Last Ride.
How much is "leadership" worth? In the Ravens' case, apparently a lot. Ray Lewis isn't the player he once was -- trust me, those tackle stats you heard about are deceiving -- but his impact on games seems to be as strong as ever. Dating back to last year, Baltimore is 12-4 with four playoff wins when Ray-Ray plays. The Ravens went 5-5 this season in the ten games Lewis missed.
"This will be my last ride," Lewis told his teammates on January 2, four days before Baltimore's Wild Card playoff game. "I've ran my course. It's time for me to go create a different legacy."
Lewis doesn't run as well as he used to. He's become a liability in pass coverage. But his on-field presence increases the physicality of the players around him. Lewis still plays with ferocity and violence, and it's contagious. It's intangible, yes, but Lewis' Last Ride works in Baltimore's favor.
6. The Nickel Package.
The Ravens played four corners extensively in the AFC Championship Game, with Cary Williams and Corey Graham in the starting lineup while nickel back Chykie Brown and dime corner Jimmy Smith saw increased action. The four-cornerback defensive grouping was used to combat New England's spread-like scheme. San Francisco is "multiple" on offense, but doesn't spread the field quite like the Pats and will keep Baltimore in more base-defense looks. While top receiver Michael Crabtree typically moves all over the formation, the 49ers would be smart to split him out wide as often as possible to face off with Ravens outside corners Williams and Brown. Slot defender Graham had trouble with Wes Welker two weeks ago, but Graham is the best cover man Baltimore has.
In San Francisco's nickel, the slot cornerback is Carlos Rogers with Chris Culliver on the left side and Tarell Brown on the right. Neither of these teams uses a "shadow" philosophy where one corner would follow the opponent's top receiver all over the field. The Ravens and 49ers play "sides" in the secondary while most commonly leaving one safety back deep (Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson) and keeping the other (Bernard Pollard, Donte Whitner) close to the line of scrimmage, or "in the box." At 6-foot, 192, slot corner Rogers has adequate size to defend Ravens slot receiver Anquan Boldin. Baltimore deep threat Torrey Smith most often lines up on the right side of the offensive formation, where he'll deal with physical press corner Culliver. Fellow flier receiver Jacoby Jones plays in all three-wide sets. He and Smith regularly flip sides depending on personnel groups.
7. Return Teams.
I expect a close game. A physical, hard-fought Super Bowl where something like a kickoff or punt turns the tide and goes a long way toward deciding the outcome. As of Tuesday night, the 49ers were 3.5-point favorites. If I were a gambling man, I would pick the Ravens to cover the spread.
The Ravens have an edge on special teams. Head coach John Harbaugh spent a decade as the Eagles' special teams coordinator, so it comes as no surprise that Football Outsiders graded Baltimore with the best special teams in the league in 2012. San Francisco was 20th.
The biggest difference maker for Baltimore's regular season special teams was kickoff and punt returner Jacoby Jones. Jones led the NFL in kick return average (30.7) among players with at least 17 returns, bringing two back to the house. Jones' 9.2-yard punt return average was more pedestrian, but he did find pay dirt once from 62 yards out. Jones has mostly been held in check on 15 playoff return chances, but that may mean he's due. Jones is 6-foot-2, 212 and runs 4.47.
Despite the modest special teams rating from Football Outsiders, San Francisco is no slouch in the return game, either. LaMichael James (5'8/194) runs 4.45 and averaged 29.8 yards per regular season kick return. Ted Ginn (5'11/180) was pulled off kicks in favor of James in late November, but had a 20-yard punt return in the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta and ripped off a 28-yarder in the regular season finale in Arizona. Ginn runs in the 4.38-4.41 range.
8. 49ers kicker David Akers.
If Super Bowl XLVII is as close as expected, a field goal could just as easily be the difference. Again, Baltimore holds a sizable advantage here. Dating back to the first month of the season, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has nailed 24-of-26 field goal chances (92.3 percent). Over 49ers kicker David Akers' last 16 games, he is 25-of-39 (64.1 percent). Akers has missed a field goal in six of his last eight games.
The Niners should consider themselves lucky that the kicking conundrum hasn't truly caught up with them yet. Perhaps it will when they play for all the marbles.