Chances are you'll be watching the Super Bowl today as over half of America does. It's the most watched show on television and from start to finish it is just that - a show. From the pre-game shows that have already been going for hours (it's 10 am cst as I'm typing) to the game, the big time commercials and the halftime spectacle, we're in for a great day.
I'm going to strictly focus on the game for this post although to say I'm excited for Beyonce at halftime is a major understatement. I said in my last podcast I would have a preview podcast with Kevin Brown. Then he decided to have a life, I worked a 9-hour day yesterday and decided to have a life after and as a result I'm typing my thoughts instead. Kevin and I will entertain you soon. I promise. For real this time. On to the game.
Sometimes teams feel like teams of destiny and that is the reason that many people are picking Baltimore to win. It's not hard to find that storyline as Ray Lewis takes the field for his last hurrah this evening. That feeling of destiny was enhanced last night when Jonathan Ogden was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ogden was the Ravens first ever draft pick, followed later in the first round by Lewis. Seeing how John Harbaugh’s club got here, it certainly seems like they needed some divine intervention also known as John Fox's idiotic coaching strategy and one horrible play by Broncos safety Rahim Moore that kept them alive in the divisional round.
Over the past few years, there have been a number of teams that got hot late and went on to win the Super Bowl. Most notably the Giants, in both 2007-08 and last season, barely made it into the playoffs and then didn't lose again. The Packers in 2010-11 did the same thing. This year Baltimore is being described as the "hot" team, but I'm not quite sure where that came from which is why I won't be jumping onto their bandwagon.
The Ravens lost 4 of 5 games down the stretch of the regular season. Yes they've won their 3 playoff games, but it's not like they've been dominant. The Giants and Packers in their Super Bowl seasons all won at least 3 of 5 down the stretch before winning their 3 playoff games and eventually the Super Bowl. The 49ers had a bye and thus have only needed to win two games to get here, but they won 3 of 5 down the stretch so who’s really the hotter team?
The reason I'm picking the 49ers though is simply because I think they're better. They definitely have more talent. The Ravens roster is excellent. The 49ers is arguably the best in the league. The Ravens offensive line has been spectacular since a re-shuffle in the playoffs that included bringing Bryant McKinnie in to start at left tackle and sliding Michael Oher over to the right side. That said, I think Aldon Smith at the very least gets some pressure and likely ends his 5 game sack drought. The pressure could make Flacco make his first mistake of the playoffs (8 td's, 0 int's) and Baltimore will need to score to keep up with San Francisco.
The 49ers offensive attack is still evolving and unlike the Ravens who are likely to just line up and play, San Fran will undoubtedly have some new wrinkles out of the pistol formation to confuse the Ravens defense. I've watched a ton of coverage this week and no one seems to have a good answer as to how to defend this thing and there's good reason why. It’s damn near impossible.
Some very smart defensive people have suggested "hit the quarterback on every play" when discussing the read option part of San Fran’s attack. Small problem with that – the 49ers don't run the read option every play.
The first of many problems when defending the read option is you don't know when it's coming. A defensive player has instincts he goes on and the option plays against those instincts. If a defensive end is used to firing off the ball to get after the quarterback, the offensive lineman will let that player do just that. The quarterback, in this case Colin Kaepernick, will read that guy coming at him and hand the ball off to the running back who will run right by him into a giant hole for a giant gain.
Now the defensive lineman adjusts. He doesn't come firing off the ball, staying disciplined to the dive handoff (up the middle). If he guesses right and the play is a read option, Kaepernick keeps the ball and you're now in a foot race with one of the fastest players in the league to the outside. Ask the Packers how that went.
It's worth noting at this point that all read options are not the same. Sometimes the quarterback goes inside with the keeper. Sometimes the inside read means a handoff to the running back. When the ball is at the mesh point (when it's in both the QB's and RB's hands), the defense has to determine who's going where as it's impossible to tell pre-snap. We got all that? Good. Because now that we've covered both of those guys, San Fran will add a pitch man as a 3rd option and you're totally screwed. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see one of the new wrinkles we haven't seen much of yet to be Frank Gore and LaMichael James in the backfield together. The 49ers also often use a lead blocker on this play that you have to deal with. Remember too that the defense has to read all of this as it happens in no time at all while the offensive players all know what they’re doing before the ball is snapped putting them at least a step ahead.
So now that we've run through all these iterations of one play here's the fun part: they might not run that play.
Just because Colin Kaepernick lines up in the pistol doesn't mean he's running the option. He could go with a straight drop back and throw. Remember that defensive lineman who's no longer shooting off the ball? He's getting no pressure. The laser armed QB has all day to throw. That's if you're lucky because if he drops straight back, your entire defense can read pass. If Kaepernick goes to the mesh point, pulls the ball and then drops back off play-action, you're really screwed. Chances are your safeties bit on the run fake and your poor linebacker assigned to cover Vernon Davis is now staring at the 85 on the back of his jersey as he runs down the field with his 4.3 speed. The safety that was supposed to help him deep is being run by too thanks to the play-action fake and all Kaepernick has to do is hit a wide open 6'3" target.
Hitting the quarterback is a great strategy to defend the read option. The problem is, you don't know it's coming.
As for the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense has to be tired of hearing how they are vulnerable to the big play and how good Baltimore is at making them. I expect the Ravens to hit one or two deep shots, but the 49ers get a stop when it matters and my official prediction is 35-28 San Francisco over Baltimore.
One last note - if the game comes down to the kickers, the Ravens statistically have an enormous advantage. David Akers has been atrocious this year while Justin Tucker has barely missed. Tucker is an undrafted rookie and Akers is a 14-year veteran who played in a Super Bowl with the Eagles. That said, one has been money and one shtoinked one off the upright last week in Atlanta so hard he looked visibly shaken. If there's a chance for Jim Harbaugh to go for it on 4th down and avoid a kick, I'd expect him to do it.
Enjoy the game and there will be a review podcast early this week. Also free plug for my Z89 boys who will be live postgame on Call It a Wrap. The Super Bowl shows were easily two of my favorites while I was there so show Fitz and Corey some love by tuning in here.