For as much publicity as he’s gotten, you’d think the 49ers’ offense should mostly be concerned with Ray Lewis. But, even if soaked in deer antler spray, holy water, or even the blood of Christ, Lewis should not be the 49ers’ beast of burden. Indeed, the bigger worry should focus primarily on Lewis’ counterparts, namely Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw.
In last season’s matchup, Terrell Suggs dominated the 49ers’ offensive line, pressuring quarterback Alex Smith six times, three of which were sacks. This season, his effectiveness as a pass rusher has been sapped by various injuries, but Suggs has still proven to be a good run defender, especially in the playoffs. Against Denver, Suggs had the best game of the season, registering six stops in the run game. Only two other players this season registered as many in a single game.
Even without a Suggs getting consistent pressure, the Ravens pass rush is still formidable–thanks to Paul Kruger. Kruger is the most productive pass rusher among all 3-4 outside linebackers. Though he doesn’t have the sacks, he still has the most pressures relative to snaps than another player, according to Pro Football Focus’s ”Pass Rushing Productivity” rating, which measures pressure on a per snap basis with weighting toward sacks. Kruger is not without his weaknesses, however. In 298 snaps in run defense, Kruger has managed just 18 tackles and 12 stops, while also managing to miss six tackles–the second most among 3-4 OLBs.
Fortunately, the Ravens don’t have to rely on Kruger in the run game, as rookie Courtney Upshaw has already proven himself as one of the best run defenders in the NFL. By Pro Football Focus’ count, Upshaw registers a stop on 9.9% of his snaps. This is bested by only Anthony Spencer of the Dallas Cowboys.
So what do two effective run defenders and one dominant pass rusher add up to? If their matchup against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins are any indication, it will mean a long day for Colin Kaepernick.
Though without Suggs, the Ravens still managed to contain Griffin, who would rush the ball just once due to Baltimore’s edge containment. Baltimore would also pressure Griffin on 50% of his dropbacks, which resulted in three sacks and six quarterback hits. Baltimore’s pressure also forced Griffin to scramble six times for just 30 yards, a fumble, and one devastating knee injury.
Ultimately, because of the Ravens focused on Griffin, Washington running back Alfred Morris was able to help carry his team to victory, rushing for 129 yards on just 23 carries and a touchdown. It stands to reason that the 49ers will copy the Redskins blue print. To see how the Ravens might alter their gameplan, we talked with NFL Writer Mike Wilkening.
Wilkening has experience covering the AFC North, as well as the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, and currently maintains his own blog, where he offers analysis and handicapping. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeWilkening.
East Bay Sports Guy (EBSG): The Ravens played a read-option/spread/pistol/
Mike Wilkening: I can’t speak to what the specific game plan was for Griffin III in Week 14. Now, could it be helpful in terms of preparing for the 49ers? I suppose. The Redskins moved the ball quite well vs. the Ravens, averaging 6.4 yards per play; perhaps Baltimore has learned a few things from that game. That said, no matter the game plan, the Ravens will need to be physical and disciplined to knock off San Francisco.
Typically, if a team is able to stop the read-option–as the Ravens were–it opens up lanes for the running game. This seemed to be the case against Redskins, as well, given that Alfred Morris eclipsed 120 yards. Will the Ravens be better equipped to stop the run with Ray Lewis back? If Gore has a similar game to that of Morris, can the Ravens still pull out a victory?
EBSG: Typically, if a team is able to stop the read-option–as the Ravens were–it opens up lanes for the running game. This seemed to be the case against Redskins, as well, given that Alfred Morris eclipsed 120 yards. Will the Ravens be better equipped to stop the run with Ray Lewis back? If Gore has a similar game to that of Morris, can the Ravens still pull out a victory?
Wilkening: Yes, Lewis helps the run defense. If Gore rushes for 120 yards, the 49ers are going to be quite tough to beat. Gore’s racking up about 17 rushing attempts per game. Exceeding 100 yards with that usage rate would indicate one or a couple of the following: that Gore has 1) broken off a number of longer runs; 2) is getting more work than usual because the Niners are having success running the ball; or 3) is receiving more carries because San Francisco is trying to run out the clock. All are bad things for Baltimore.
EBSG: What did Lardarius Webb mean to the defense and have they recovered from his loss?
Wilkening: When healthy, he is their best cornerback, and he was playing at a high level at the time of his injury. Corey Graham has stepped into the lineup and played well in Webb’s place, but there’s no doubting that Webb’s absence hurts this secondary, as it weakens the CB depth beyond Graham and Cary Williams.