3-4 Defense vs. The read option
In looking at 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's success with read-option plays, he's had relatively equal results against 4-3 or 3-4 defenses. The one exception was the divisional playoff game against the Packers on Jan. 12 in which Kaepernick ran for 181 yards, a playoff record for a quarterback. Green Bay, like the Ravens, uses a 3-4 alignment.
So here's a question: Is one defensive front better suited to stop the read-option?
The answer is not really. After the ball is snapped, there are typically the same number of defenders in the box in either defense. What changes are the responsibilities of various players, though we won't bother getting into those intricate details.
If there is one thing that tilts the balance to one scheme versus the other, it's this: In the 3-4 defense, which features three linemen and four linebackers, teams theoretically have more athletic players near the line of scrimmage. That's a very good thing against a quarterback as elusive as Kaepernick.
When you think of the Ravens, it's hard to not immediately think of defenses that pummel quarterbacks. Except, that's not who the Ravens are anymore. Against the 49ers, the Ravens — who tied for 15th in the regular season with 37 sacks — need to find a way to pressure Kaepernick when he decides to stay in the pocket. Against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, the Ravens registered just one quarterback hit and applied little pressure. Kaepernick carved them up, completing 16 of his 21 passes (76 percent).
According to the website Pro Football Focus, the Ravens' premier pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, has applied a quarterback pressure just once every 14.5 rushes since returning from a torn Achilles' tendon. That's second worst among all 3-4 outside linebackers.
Kaepernick presents enough problems as it is. The Ravens can't permit him to have a consistently clean pocket.
Just in time
49ers WR Michael Crabtree's breakout season has come just in time to perform on the biggest stage in American sports. Crabtree, a first-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2009, has been a good-but-not-special receiver for his first three seasons. But this season, he had 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns — by far his best campaign. It's no coincidence that he's also become Kaepernick's favorite target. Crabtree has been targeted by Kaepernick an average of 10.6 times in the past seven games. That includes 13 times in a Week 17 win over Arizona. Don't expect that to change tonight. Those attempts to Crabtree have resulted in mostly completions, including 15 receptions in 18 targets in the 49ers' two playoff games. That means Crabtree is getting separation from defensive backs and has been sure-handed with the ball. Can he do it against the Ravens? Or can the Ravens slow down this hot-handed wideout?
The Ravens have faced some of the NFL's preeminent tight ends this season, but most have produced pedestrian results against the Baltimore defense. This is noteworthy given the presence of 49ers Pro Bowler Vernon Davis, who helped propel the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game with, perhaps, his best game of the season (five catches, 106 yards). The Ravens clamped down on the top tight ends. This includes games against the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (2 catches, 21 yards), the Bengals' Jermaine Gresham (3 catches, 30 yards), the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2 catches, 13 yards) and the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez (1 catch, 6 yards). The one notable exception was the Eagles' Brent Celek, who caught eight passes for 157 yards in a win over the Ravens in Week 2. This is a pretty strong suggestion the Ravens linebackers and safeties have done a good job in pass coverage against those tight ends. That's something they'll have to lean on today.
Credit where due
Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie has been a major disappointment during a career filled with "what ifs." What if he had kept his head straight after being picked seventh overall in 2002? What if he had a better work ethic? What if he was best known for something other than the Vikings' "Love Boat" scandal? At this point, none of that matters because McKinnie is one reason the Ravens reached the Super Bowl. Before the wild-card game, Baltimore inserted McKinnie into the starting lineup. It moved Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele from right tackle to left guard, replacing the injured Jah Reid. McKinnie hasn't played at an All-Pro level, but he was humbled by being benched earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the Ravens have enjoyed an offensive renewal.
By the numbers
0 Interceptions thrown by the Ravens' Joe Flacco this postseason
4 Individual 100-yard rushing games allowed by the 49ers this season
5 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens' Ray Rice
30 Points per game scored by the Ravens this postseason
19.8 Average margin of victory in the 49ers' five Super Bowl wins
228 Regular-season games played by retiring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis