Each day this week, reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday's Super Bowl. Today, he looks at how the 49ers may try to keep Ravens running back
In Ray Rice, the Ravens have one of the NFL's most versatile playmakers, a running back who is capable of grinding out tough yards between the tackles and producing big plays outside of them. He is a slippery runner inside the red zone. And he is one of few legit runners who can also flex out wide and do damage as a receiver.
Rice will be the most dangerous offensive player on the field Sunday, but the last running back to be named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was
The Ravens' opponent Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers, is known for a brick wall of a defensive front that helped them rank second in fewest points allowed and third in total defense during the regular season. And when it comes to stopping the run, 49ers inside linebackers
"Tremendous linebackers. Outstanding tacklers," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said. "They're not necessarily guys that come in with reckless abandon to blow up a running back. They come in with good, clean, hard tackles. You can tell they're very well coached in the fundamentals of playing linebacker. You see very few missed tackles from those inside linebackers. I guess that's the reason they're All-Pros and don't leave the field."
A DUAL-THREAT RUNNING BACK
Rice, whom the Ravens locked down with a lucrative contract extension last July, had another strong regular season and was voted to his third Pro Bowl in four years. Often running behind fullback
Rice’s big plays are well-documented on the highlight shows -- including the playoffs, he has made a dozen plays that gained 27 or more yards -- but the best example of what Rice is capable of doing as a receiver came in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 overtime win over the
"I like to catch the ball. I don't mind catching them," Rice told reporters Wednesday. "A catch for me is like a long hand-off. Once I get it, the stat book says different, but you can make a big play on a catch."
Rice leads the NFL with 247 rushing yards this postseason, but he also has received more carries (64) than any other back and is averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. His backup, rookie
Pierce and his physical style of play is a nice change of pace from Rice. But make no mistake, the 49ers will put the bulls-eye on Rice in the Super Bowl. He is still the most dangerous of
THE LEAGUE'S BEST LINEBACKERS
The best inside linebacker in football will be wearing a No. 52 jersey in Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m not talking about
"He is a younger Ray Lewis," Leach said last week. "He's like what Ray has been doing for a long time."
Willis’ partner on the inside, Bowman, is an All-Pro, too, as is pass rusher extraordinaire Aldon Smith. Outside linebacker
The 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing defense during the regular season, allowing just 94.2 yards per game. They are particularly effective when they funnel running backs inside to Willis and Bowman, who have missed just 16 tackles combined, according to Pro Football Focus. Opposing backs have averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry running between the tackles, but they have averaged more than 4.5 on the outside.
San Francisco also ranked fourth against the pass during the regular season. Smith and Brooks terrorized quarterbacks and had 26 sacks between them. Willis and Bowman are three-down inside linebackers who can cover. Willis usually draws the assignment of the opposing tight end, and Bowman, who led the 49ers in tackles and finished second in the NFL, is tasked with running alongside shifty backs like Rice.
But Rice, who has caught just four passes this postseason, doubts that Willis or Bowman can cover him.
"This game will come down to matchups," he said. "In the run game, the linebackers, they might get their fair share of plays, they might make some tackles, but there comes a point in the game when you have to cover me. ... I don't think a lot of linebackers can cover me, not just the 49ers. Linebackers are built a different way. They're built to tackle. They're not built to cover, so when I've got them man-to-man, I have to win my fair share."
KEEPING RICE UNDER WRAPS
For what it is worth -- I obviously think it is worth a lot or I wouldn’t be quoting him -- Jaworski likes Rice’s chances if the 49ers stick to their typical man coverage. He also thinks
“They’re going to run those wheel routes [with Rice]. They’re going to run their shot plays. They’re going to run their wheel routes with Dennis Pitta, as well,” he said. “Clearly, I think they will not only look at
But when it comes to running the ball -- something the Ravens have done on 48 percent of their plays under new coordinator
"You come up there and look at the reads, try to get on the right aiming point, and you just try to finish the block from there. Just their vision, and when they need to be physical, they can bring it. When they need to run, they can run. When they need to juke you to make you miss, they can do all three of those really well," Yanda said. "I'm not going to be able to just come up to them and knock the snot out of them because he's going to make me miss. You've got to respect them because they're great players."
During the regular season, the Ravens offensive line ranked 14th in adjusted line yards, a useful stat from Football Outsiders, and they also ranked 14th when it came to second-level yards. The 49ers are among the league's best at denying access to the second level because Willis and Bowman are so savvy.
"If you watch the film on them, one thing you notice is that they don't attack the line of scrimmage. Normally, you always say if you're a linebacker to read, run, attack. Those guys read more and almost play off their defensive linemen," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said. "They read that then attack. So therefore, it's harder to double-team them, just because they always keep a little space between them and they're great athletes."
Rice recognizes that, too, which is why he knows his rushing numbers might be down in the Super Bowl. But he and his bruising fullback and a surging offensive line don't plan on going down Sunday without a fight.