In the week leading up to what appears to be one of the most competitive Super Bowl match-ups in recent memory, the sports world has spent a majority of the time talking about deer antlers, “catfishing”, and whether Randy Moss really is the greatest receiver of all time.
Fortunately, Super Bowl Sunday is now just around the corner, and there are some great match-ups on the field to keep your eyes on. What should you be focused on this Sunday?
Baltimore QB Joe Flacco vs. 49ers’ Secondary
San Francisco is known for the defense, but if the team has displayed any concerning weakness during the postseason it's been against the passing game. That bodes well for the Ravens, who have benefited from Joe Flacco's surprising playoff emergence as a top quarterback. Flacco has been especially productive throwing the ball deep, where he's managed to make multiple big plays down the field with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones while not turning the ball over.
One major key in this match-up will the be 49ers pass rush. Baltimore has shown a huge amount of confidence in the offensive line during the post season, allowing Flacco to take his time in the pocket while routes develop down the field. San Francisco’s pass rush hasn't been the same since Justin Smith's injury, but it still has the ability to be disruptive.
Smith will get plenty of looks deep out of the slot, and he'll also likely see most of the attention from the 49ers' defense. Will Flacco be able to find Boldin, Jones, or Dennis Pitta open elsewhere when Smith is covered?
Baltimore OL Kelechi Osemele vs San Francisco DT Justin Smith
There’s been plenty of talk in the media the week about how San Francisco’s mid-season gamble of switching quarterbacks may have been one of the gutsiest moves of the year. Less has been made of a move Baltimore made, but it may have been just as bold - and just as successful. Entering the post season the Ravens did some serious shuffling on the offensive line. Most significant was the moving rookie offensive tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard.
Osemele played well in 16 starts at right tackle, and many questioned the move when it was made. Osemele has proven himself to be more than capable of handling the move however, and he’s played well throughout the playoffs. It’s helped the offense a great deal. The Ravens are averaging 425 yards of offense in the postseason, while they averaged 352 yards during the previous 16 games.
Osemele will be matched up with the player who perhaps is the key to San Francisco’s defense, Justin Smith. When Smith is healthy, every 49er defender around him plays at a higher level. And while he’s clearly not himself while practically playing with one arm, his performance is trending upwards, especially against the run. Can the rookie offensive lineman keep Smith quiet Sunday night?
San Francisco TE Delanie Walker vs. A History of Dropped Passes
An endless amount of focus has been placed on the 49ers' pistol-based offensive packages, and for good reason. The ground attack has been a big part of San Francisco’s success, and they probably wouldn't have made it this far without it. However, the reality is that it's not something that the 49ers actually use that often. Their base offense is much more traditional, and to win the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick will need to continue the success he's had throwing the ball.
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree can make big plays at nearly anytime, from anywhere on the field. Randy Moss isn’t the greatest receiver in the NFL anymore, but it’s very likely he could have a few big plays left in the tank. Baltimore can’t afford to let either of these guys run free, meaning the oft-targeted Delanie Walker may get even more looks against one on one coverage.
As 49er fans know all too well, the key here will not be whether or not Walker is able to get open. Walker has proven to be a good tight end in all facets of the game, both on the ground and through the air, with one crucial exception: he drops the ball far, far too often. When he hangs on the the ball, he's usually able to make a big impact: the last time he played a game in the Superdome, he racked up 81 receiving yards. Can he put together an even better performance during this visit?
On paper, this game has the potential to go down as one of the most memorable Super Bowls in history. One or two plays will likely end up deciding this one, and there's a great chance it will come down to the final drive of the game. Although he's young, there aren't many quarterbacks in the league I'd choose right now over a player like Colin Kaepernick to lead that final drive of the game. The dynamic play maker will get a chance to cement his place in NFL history in only his second year, and I think he'll capitalize on that opportunity.
San Francisco 27 Baltimore 24