We know what the 49ers bring to this year’s Thanksgiving table: a fast, physical defense that forces teams to abandon the run before the games start; an improving offense that has some weapons and takes care of the ball; a special teams unit that, with the exception of some field goal hiccups against the Cardinals and Eagles, has been stellar in every way and contributed greatly to the 49ers’ consistent advantage in terms of field position throughout the 2011 season.
The 49ers have successfully met every challenge, and that’s shown in their 9-0-1 record against the spread this season. They outplayed the Giants at home, but does that mean they can repeat that kind of performance on a short week in Baltimore, with the football world focused on the battle between John and Jim Harbaugh?
Comparing the Giants and the Ravens could offer some clues. In this post we’ll start by checking out both teams’ offenses.
The Giants’ offensive style vs. the Ravens’ offensive style
The Giants caused problems for the 49ers by using a deep group of receivers to spread the field. The Giants were able to get open consistently, and if it weren’t for a couple drops by Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham, they may have beaten the 49ers.
The Giants are 5th in the NFL in passing yards per game, 4th in yards per attempt and 6th in both passing touchdowns and quarterback rating. The Ravens are 12th, 24th, 16th and 21st in those respective categories.
The Giants didn’t have Ahmad Bradshaw against the Niners, but the Ravens have Ray Rice, who rushed for over 100 yards and two scores against the Bengals yesterday. But the Ravens have quietly become one of the leagues pass-happiest teams, with more attempts (389) than anyone other than the Saints and Lions. While the Ravens throw a lot, they aren’t exactly efficient or explosive through the air — the Ravens and the 49ers both have thrown 13 TD passes this season, even though the Niners rank 31st in the league in pass attempts (277).
Players to watch out for
Since the 49ers haven’t allowed an opposing rusher to hit 100 yards in 32 games or given up a rushing touchdown this season, the Ravens may try to utilize Rice more as a receiver. Rice was targeted 10 times yesterday against the Bengals, catching 5 passes for 43 yards. But since the Niners’ speed and coverage skills at middle linebacker have squashed nearly all screen passes and other assorted checkdowns and dump-offs attempted against them this season, the Ravens are probably going to have to look at other, deeper options in the passing game.
So who is the Ravens’ version of Victor Cruz? That would be Torrey Smith, Baltimore’s streaky rookie who’s had an eventful year full of big plays, big drops and two huge games. One of those was yesterday against Cincinnati, when he caught 6 balls for 165 yards and a touchdown.
On the other side, 49ers and old foe Anquan Boldin meet again. In 13 career games against the Niners, Boldin (the Ravens’ leading receiver in terms of yardage with 684) has amassed 80 catches for 990 yards and 7 TD. That could be misleading, since the last two times Boldin faced the Niners occurred in 2009 when Boldin was a Cardinal; in those two games Boldin only caught 7 passes for 59 yards and no scores.
The Ravens don’t have a lot of guys they like to throw to, particularly with Lee Evans battling injuries this year (he was targeted once yesterday and didn’t catch a pass). If you don’t count Rice the Ravens’ third receiver is probably tight end Ed Dickson, who caught 10 passes for 79 yards with 2 TD in the Ravens’ 22-17 loss in Seattle on Nov. 13. Dickson’s an emerging threat, but will the 49ers pay as much attention to him as they did to Jake Ballard, the Giants’ lead tight end (who often found himself covered by Patrick Willis, including the Giants’ final offensive play)? Probably not, especially since Rice is a more dynamic rusher than either Brandon Jacobs or D.J. Ware.
The Flacco factor
Eli Manning’s trip to San Francisco caused everyone to say the word “elite” far more often than necessary. No worries of that with Flacco, who despite the Ravens’ impressive record has been knocked for regressing in 2011. Not only has Flacco only completed 55.4% of his passes, he’s also thrown 8 interceptions and fumbled 10 times (losing 5).
In his fourth year Flacco has career lows in several statistical categories. He’s better than John Skelton, but he isn’t on Manning’s level this year.
Overall (slight) offensive advantage: NY Giants
While Rice gives the Ravens a better lead running back going into Thursday’s game than the Bradshaw-less Giants had a couple weeks ago, the Ravens are a short-passing team. That plays right into the strengths of the 49ers’ defense, a group that rarely blitzes and contains the area of the field around the line of scrimmage as well as any.
The Giants, with Cruz, Manningham, Hakeem Nicks and Ballard, boast a deeper group of receiving threats than the Ravens possess with Smith, Boldin, Dickson and Rice. That being said, the Ravens are a more balanced team than the Giants and have scored nearly 3 points more per game (coincidentally both the Ravens and Niners have scored 256 points this season).
Both the Giants’ and Ravens’ offensive lines are comparable, but the Giants’ biggest strength (long passing plays) posed a bigger threat to the 49ers’ defense than what the Ravens do. Can the 49ers hold Baltimore to 20 points, like they did against the Giants a couple weeks ago? As long as the 49ers contain Smith it’s hard to think of a reason why not.