When the Ravens run
Ray Rice powers this offense with an excellent combination of vision, instincts, and power. The 5-foot-8-inch, 212-pound tailback has an exceptionally quick first step, and he runs low and hard. He has great balance and can juke, jive, and bounce off defenders like a pinball off bumpers. Because of his comparative lack of size, he can be hard to locate, and because of his quickness, he avoids taking direct hits. Rice’s short, muscular legs are always churning and he’ll break off at least one big run per game. Bernard Pierce (6-0, 218) is a big, strong back with deceptive speed. He has good vision and will break arm tackles and deliver a blow. Fullback Vonta Leach (6-0, 260) won’t get a lot of carries but he’s the best lead blocker in the NFL. Center Matt Birk (6-4, 310) is still playing at a high level after 15 seasons. The Harvard man is smart, fast, and mobile and uses all those attributes to move men and clear paths. Left guard Kelechi Osemele (6-5, 335) will shock defenders by firing out of his stance and right guard Marshal Yanda (6-3, 315) is a grinder who will play to the whistle. Massive nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (6-2, 330) spearheads the run defense for the 49ers. He has tremendous strength and is adept at occupying multiple bodies to give the linebackers room to run. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis (6-1, 240) and NaVorro Bowman (6-0, 242) are exceptional. Willis is a forceful hitter with tremendous instincts and a nonstop motor. Bowman has tremendous lateral quickness, closing speed, and power. The man has never delivered a glancing blow.
When the Ravens pass
Joe “Cool’’ Flacco (a.k.a. soon-to-be free agent Joe “Cool” Flacco) has made himself a lot of money this postseason. The 6-foot-6-inch, 245-pound Flacco has been just what Baltimore needed in the playoffs: a steady game manager who takes what the defense gives him rather than taking unnecessary chances. The debate will rage about whether he’s an elite quarterback (he’s not) but he’s certainly above average. Flacco has a big arm and is at his best when standing tall in the pocket and delivering downfield darts. He has good footwork and can momentarily sidestep a pass rush, but to call him mobile would be a gross mischaracterization. Flacco needs to get rid of the ball quickly, because the 49ers bring it. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (6-4, 258) is a beast. He explodes off the edge and overwhelms blockers with speed and strength. Left defensive tackle Justin Smith (6-4, 285) uses power and deceptive quickness to beat his man and beat the quarterback. Anquan Boldin (6-1, 220) is a big, physical receiver with good size and great strength. He runs good routes, hides his push-offs well, and will fight for every ball and every yard. Torrey Smith has an explosive first step and blinding downfield speed. He can be a game-changer. Jacoby Jones is a sloppy route runner who can disappear at times. Tight end Dennis Pitta has good hands and concentration. Ray Rice is a demon on screens.
When the 49ers run
Frank Gore not only looks angry (check out any of his bio pictures), he runs angry. The 5-foot-9-inch, 217-pound ball of muscle is among the best inside power runners on the planet. Gore has great vision; if there’s a crease, he’ll find it. But he also possesses the power to create his own creases. You are wasting your time if you try to arm-tackle him. He loves to get physical, and you’ll never see him take the easy way out. Gore has exceptional breakaway speed (especially impressive, given that he has blown out ACLs in both knees) but can also push the pile on third and short. LaMichael James (5-9, 195) has excellent quickness and speed. He is at his best in space (he’s too fragile to bang inside), and if he can turn the corner, he’ll be a memory. The interior linemen are pretty good. Center Jonathan Goodwin (he’s quick and aggressive) and guards Mike Iupati (he’s big and powerful) and Alex Boone (he’s huge but lacks speed) will create running lanes and pick off linebackers. The great and powerful Haloti Ngata (6-4, 340) sets the tone up front for the Baltimore bad boys. A massive space eater, Ngata is surprisingly quick on his feet. He can take on more than one blocker but he can also shoot gaps and disrupt runners in the backfield. Terrence Cody (6-4, 341) is another effective widebody, but he wears down quickly. The inside linebackers are always around the ball. Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are an excellent tandem. Lewis has uncanny instincts and he’s still quicker than most. He shows great range and still packs a wallop. Ellerbe is quick and aggressive.
When the 49ers pass
Colin Kaepernick’s unique combination of size, strength, athleticism, and improvisational skills make him a nightmare matchup. Defenders can prepare for Kaepernick by watching film, but it’s impossible to mimic him during practice. Kaepernick (6 feet 4 inches, 230 pounds) can run like a track star and throw like a major leaguer. The Pistol offense he ran in college included a lot of timing patterns, but he has slowly and surely adjusted to becoming more of a pocket passer, and his decision-making continues to improve. He can fit balls into very tight windows but has to become a better touch passer; not every throw has to be 98 miles per hour. Receiver Michael Crabtree is among the league’s elite. He has excellent speed and hands, and after being knocked early on for his route-running abilities, he has become very good in that area. Randy Moss can no longer rely on his blinding speed but still has the intelligence and concentration to make plays. Few can outjump him. Ted Ginn is rarely a factor on offense. Tight end Vernon Davis is a monster. He gets off the line and into his routes quickly, snatches everything in sight, and has the power and acceleration to wreak havoc after the catch. For Baltimore, safeties Ed Reed (extremely instinctual and athletic) and Bernard Pollard (reckless and relentless) lead the secondary. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Corey Graham have developed into reliable players.
Key player: Bryant McKinnie
Baltimore’s behemoth left tackle (and by behemoth, we mean 6 feet 8 inches, 354 pounds) may have the most important job in the Superdome Sunday. The 11-year veteran must protect Joe Flacco’s blind side from the 49ers’ relentless pursuit. If Flacco gets broken, then in comes Tyrod Taylor and out goes the Ravens’ hopes of dancing on Bourbon Street.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With athleticism and strength. He has deceptive quickness in his backpedal, and he’s big and tall. He uses his massive arms and freakish wingspan to fend off and swallow up defenders.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By constantly pressuring him. It’s imperative for Aldon Smith and his band of destructive muckrakers to keep going after McKinnie because he lacks stamina and he isn’t the same guy in the second half.
RAVENS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Angry birds: Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger must contain (and punish) Colin Kaepernick — particularly on third down, when he does some of his best magical work.
2. Bird calls: Keep the plays simple. Asking Joe Flacco to carry the offense is a mistake. Go with a healthy dose of Ray Rice and let the quarterback be the complementary piece.
3. Bird brains: There are a lot of fiery Ravens who play with an edge, and sometimes that edge is costly. Be smart and avoid the late hits, the helmet-to-helmet hits, and the whining.
49ERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Gold rush: Establish the ground game first (hey, you have Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick) to keep the clock running. Then hit them with the big play.
2. Gold dust twins: Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner have been playing well all season. They need to continue to set the tone against physical receiver Anquan Boldin.
3. Gold standard: A year ago, David Akers set the record for most points by a kicker in a season (166). This season, he has been brutal (29 of 42). He needs to clear his head and return to dominance.Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.