David Fucillo covers the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers for ninersnation.com, part of SB Nation. As most Super Bowl match-ups are, this will be an unfamiliar one for each team. Except for the head coaching brothers squaring off. A lot has changed since the Thanksgiving 2011 meeting between these two teams, so we thank David for shedding some light on the Ravens foe come Super Sunday.
Baltimore Sports and Life: What do you view as the key match-ups in this game?
David Fucillo: The big key on defense will be how the 49ers secondary handles Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Julio Jones and Roddy White thrashed the 49ers in the NFC title game, so getting a handle on Smith and Boldin will be key. Containing Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce will be significant as well, but given the 49ers strengths and weaknesses on defense, that secondary match-up strikes me as a bigger deal.
On offense, the match-up will be Ravens DC Dean Pees against 49ers OC Greg Roman. How Pees approaches Kaepernick will dictate a lot of what we see from the 49ers offense. If the Ravens go a bit more wide to keep Kaepernick in the pocket and contained on the read option, we’ll see a lot more of Frank Gore and LaMichael James. If Pees shades the defense towards Vernon Davis after last week, Crabtree becomes more involved, and vice versa.
BSL: The 49ers defense is one of the best. 3rd overall total defense, and 2nd best scoring defense at 17.1 points per game allowed. However, we have seen Green Bay and Atlanta, even the Patriots and Seahawks late in the regular season not have any problems putting up big points though. If the Ravens are watching tape on those games looking for an edge, what are they seeing?
DF: The Packers and Falcons challenged the 49ers deep early, and burned the
secondary before it had time to adjust. On the other hand, the Patriots took advantage of a softer 49ers zone to chew up short chunks late. They’re sort of the tail of two halves. The big issue for the 49ers defense, as seen in part in the Seahawks win, has been big, physical runners. Ahmad Bradshaw did big things against them, as did Marshawn Lynch in that second game. If the Ravens can get a bit more physical, they can potentially get the W.
BSL: With so many weapons on defense, and one of the best MLB in the game in Patrick Willis, who is a defensive player other than Patrick Willis that the Ravens have to be aware of at all times? Who is the guy that Flacco has to know where he is on every snap?
DF: OLB Ahmad Brooks will be a guy to watch. He is a bit more under the radar than
fellow OLB Aldon Smith, but he was pivotal in the 49ers win over the Falcons, and has been a key all year. If the Ravens decide to double Justin Smith or Aldon Smith, it potentially opens up space for Brooks on the other side of the field.
BSL: This week, everybody will be breaking down the “read option” style of offense the 49ers run. Three read option QB’s, Kaepernick, Wilson, and Griffin III made the playoffs this year with Kaepernick obviously having the most success. Do the Niners need to win this game to make the read option legitimate? Or do you believe it is just another gimmick like the “Wildcat” or the “Wishbone” many years ago?
DF: I think all developments in the NFL were considered gimmicks at one point. Even the “forward pass” was viewed as a gimmick when people started using it. The question is what has staying power, and what will go the way of the Wildcat. For the 49ers, it is less about the read option and more about their use of the read option out of the pistol formation that is the issue for opposing defenses. The 49ers will mix and match it depending on the defensive scheme they face. I think what will make the read option and pistol legitimate is how offenses respond to defensive adjustments next year and potentially beyond.
BSL: We’re not too familiar with the read option in Baltimore, with the exception of facing RG3 once this year. It seems like when you go after the QB the RB has the ball. You go to the RB and the QB is sweeping around the edge for a big gain. Ray Lewis and the Ravens have two weeks to figure out Kaepernicks tendencies, and try to come up with a way to stop the 49ers offensive attack. Is that an advantage in the Ravens favor, or are there too many wrinkles in an offense like that to really figure it out? Do defenses have to hope that they just guess the right player to tackle?
DF: Two weeks is always a benefit when prepping for the read option. The Falcons did a good job keeping Kaepernick from handing the ball off by going a bit more wide with the front seven. With defenders committed to their lanes on the edge, Kaepernick won’t hand it off. The key then becomes the middle of the defense containing Frank Gore and LaMichael James. With proper positioning on the edge and sound tackling fundamentals inside, the running game can be contained. The Falcons problem was they were a soft defense against the run in general, so containing it to Gore and James was still involving a defensive weakness.
BSL: Is Michael Crabtree’s off field incident going to be a factor at all, given the media circus surrounding this game, and every story anyone can come up with will get exposed?
DF: The DA announced no charges would be filed against Crabtree, so technically that
ends the story. Of course, the media will still bring it up this week. I think with the official announcement of no charges, Crabtree should be sufficiently focused on the task at hand.
BSL: Tell us about Randy Moss this season. He has been very quiet going about his business, not drawing attention to himself in negative ways as he used to. What kind of impact has he had, if any on this team?
DF: He’s been a great leader, particularly for the wide receivers, but for all the young players. He appears to be completely content with his role, knowing that this might be his last shot at a Super Bowl ring. On the field, defenses are still giving him a lot of respect with a bit of a cushion underneath. He doesn’t have the same top-end speed as early in his career, but he can still beat defenses deep. I think the 49ers will take a shot or two at him deep, but you’ll mostly see him getting 8-15 yard pick-ups underneath when the 49ers go his way.
BSL: The last stop on the Ray Lewis farewell tour is going to overshadow a lot of stories in this game. On your side, is this the last ride for Randy Moss as well?
DF: It’s hard to tell. He took last year off, and now is back this year, but a free
agent after the season. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, I could see Moss walking away. He spent last season coaching high school football, and it sounds like that’s what he wants to keep doing with his life after he retires. If the49ers lose the Super Bowl, I still could see him retiring. He has been very quiet on the subject.
BSL: Are you comfortable with David Akers still being the teams kicker? Another field goal miss versus Atlanta. With two weeks to prepare, do you see them bringing in another kicker to tryout?
DF: Not really. They decided to stick with Akers, in part because anybody that is a free agent right now is a free agent for a reason. 49ers fans really just hope this doesn’t come down to an Akers field goal attempt. It’s been a brutal year for Akers, and there have been no signs of it letting up.
BSL: Not including the brother versus brother storyline, what will be your favorite storyline leading up to this game?
DF: Seeing guys like Frank Gore and Justin Smith get a shot at a ring. Justin Smith has been a key part of this 49ers defense for years, and this is only his second playoff run, with last year being the first. Frank Gore is the 49ers all-time leading rusher, and he really was the bright spot during the down years. Getting these guys rings would be incredibly fulfilling I think.
BSL: The 49ers win the Super Bowl if _______.
DF: The 49ers win the Super Bowl if they find success in the running game. Even when
the 49ers trailed Atlanta 17-0, they did not abandon the run, coming out with four straight runs after Julio Jones’ second TD. Colin Kaepernick has a cannonfor an arm, and plenty of weapons in the passing game, but at its most basic,this 49ers team is built around the run. A strong rushing attack sets up everything else.
BSL: Is it too early to make a prediction? If not, care to share yours?
DF: I went on record previously with a 34-20 49ers victory prediction. Given how
unpredictable this season has been, as is the case with most NFL seasons, I’m
sure I’ll be wildly wrong on this!