49ers defense must unleash its wrath on Joe Flacco
The much-anticipated Harbaugh Bowl finally is here, and it couldn’t be a much bigger or more meaningful game as the NFC West-leading 49ers meet the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium with a whole lot on the line for both teams. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the 9-1 Niners need to do to beat the Ravens and match their best start since 1997.
Put the clamps on Ray Rice
Rice, Baltimore’s elusive halfback, is the player who makes the Ravens go on offense. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,176 yards from scrimmage and is a dual threat running the ball or coming out of the backfield on passing downs. Rice leads the Ravens with 663 yards rushing and also is their leader in receptions with 51 catches for 513 yards. Rice rumbled for 104 yards rushing and two TDs on the ground last week against a good Cincinnati run defense, but he had been a nonfactor in two of Baltimore’s previous four games. Rice has eight rushing TDs – and 10 overall – and will be going against a San Francisco defense that hasn’t allowed a rushing score in 11 consecutive games. The 49ers will look to make yards tough to come by for Rice on the ground while keeping a close eye on him as an outlet option on passing downs.
Terrell Suggs vs. Joe Staley/Anthony Davis/Alex Boone
Suggs is one of the NFL’s top sackmasters and leads the Ravens this year with six QB dumps. But Suggs has gone three games without a sack and has just three in the nine games since Baltimore’s season opener, an indication that opponents are discovering schemes to contain him. The 49ers must do the same as Suggs figures to be a constant threat within the multiple blitz packages the Ravens will throw at the Niners and quarterback Alex Smith. Baltimore will move Suggs around in its 3-4 defensive scheme and he will come most often off the edge on passing downs, matching him against Niners starting tackles Staley and Davis, who have settled into a regular pattern of strong pass protection. Davis could be affected by an ankle injury sustained during last week’s blowout victory against Arizona, though Davis is listed as probable on San Francisco’s injury report. Boone saw action last week after Davis was injured, and if he is called upon today, the same responsibilities will apply to him.
Pressure Joe Flacco and force him into mistakes
The Ravens likely will need to go to the air to keep their offense moving, and Baltimore likes to look long in its passing game with the strong-armed Flacco, meaning he will be spending time in the pocket looking for receiving targets going deep. The Niners must keep constant pressure on Flacco and not let him set up comfortably behind protection. Flacco has thrown for 2,576 yards and 12 touchdowns this year, but he also has been intercepted eight times and leads all NFL quarterbacks with 10 fumbles. Flacco can be careless with the football, and the 49ers must make him pay for it and keep hitting him to keep him out of rhythm. All 14 touchdowns allowed by San Francisco’s defense this season have come through the air, and the Ravens will attempt to strike there with play-action passing. Flacco threw two touchdown passes in last week’s victory over the Bengals, marking his first multi-touchdown game in seven weeks, and the 49ers must prevent him from building on that performance.
Protect the football and win the turnover battle
In what figures to be an intense, low-scoring affair, turnovers could make the difference. Actually, turnovers have made a big difference for the 49ers this season – they lead the NFL with a plus-17 turnover differential after coming up with five takeaways last week against Arizona, raising their season total to a NFL-high 26. On the other end of the spectrum, Baltimore has a plus-3 turnover differential and leads the AFC with 21 takeaways. Alex Smith is tied with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers for fewest interceptions by a NFL starter, and the 49ers have committed a NFL-low nine turnovers. Both defenses are loaded with ballhawks, and the Ravens will be coming at Smith from all angles looking to force him to put the ball on the carpet or into their hands. In a game between good teams with standout defenses, turnovers almost always become a big factor in the outcome.
Establish run game to set up play-action passing
The 49ers have shown a lot of passing in their past two games, but the Ravens and their experienced, big-game-tested, fourth-ranked defense are likely to load up to stop Frank Gore and the power running game that has been instrumental in San Francisco’s 9-1 start. The Ravens are No. 5 in the NFL in stopping the run, so this will be a true test for Gore and the 49ers, who must look for steady production on the ground to keep their offense balanced and also set up play-action passing that could slip receiving targets open against the NFL’s seventh-ranked passing defense.
Contain Baltimore’s big-play wideouts
The Ravens like to throw it long, and they have receivers who can get open deep and make the big play. Each of Baltimore’s top three wideouts can hit the quick-strike deep – rookie Torrey Smith averages a NFL-leading 20.3 yards per catch, Anquan Boldin averages 15.5 yards per reception and veteran Lee Evans averages 22.5 yards each time he hauls in the football. Evans is just working his way back from an injury that has given Smith an opportunity to flourish in his place, and the Ravens are the only NFL team with three players with 500 or more yards receiving. Boldin and Smith have combined for 23 receptions of 20 yards or more this season, and the Niners must limit them from adding much to that total.
Push the ball downfield with Alex Smith and passing game
Smith won’t want to be throwing deep down the middle too often with All-Pro free safety Ed Reed roaming center field for the Ravens, but given Baltimore’s youth on the edges at cornerback, the 49ers should have opportunities to push the ball downfield with their improving passing game. The Niners must get their edge receivers – starters Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards in particular – involved in the attack and have them test the corners with deep routes like they have with mixed success in recent weeks. That will help open things underneath for tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, who may not be able to beat the terrific Reed deep but can get open for catches in front of him.