Young, relentless 49ers will scrub aging Ravens’ mission

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comFebruary 3, 2013 

The Baltimore Ravens, I keep hearing, are on a mission to beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Forget the interior matchups unfavorable to the AFC champions. Forget the way the Ravens’ defense was shredded the last time — the only time — it faced a quarterback with the duel-threat capabilities of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Forget how the 49ers followed up on their combination-punch knockout of Green Bay in the divisional playoffs by overcoming a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta.

We’re supposed to forget all that because it’s the Ravens’ time, the Ravens’ destiny. They’re on a mission to win the Lombardi Trophy on behalf of the team’s late owner, Art Modell ( he died four days before the season opener) and for middle linebacker Ray Lewis (this just in: He has announced his retirement) and for free safety Ed Reed (likely playing for the final time in a Ravens uniform) and for, well, you name it.

The problem with this school of thought is that it has nothing to do with thought.

See, the 49ers also are on a mission — a mission they’ll realize in New Orleans because they’re stronger, faster, younger and vastly more versatile.

Take Kaepernick. He rushed for 181 yards against a Packers defense that had no answers. A week later, the Falcons based their defensive game plan on containing Kaepernick. To a certain extent, the plan was successful – he ran only twice – but the attention required to keep the quarterback in the pocket left tight end Vernon Davis open over the middle.

Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. Not a bad day’s work for a guy all but ignored since Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith and became the trigger man of the 49ers’ pistol offense.

The Ravens’ defense has no history with Kaepernick, but on Dec. 16 they took on a reasonable facsimile of him in Washington’s Robert Griffin III. How did that go?

“It wasn’t a good experience,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees has said.

The Redskins executed 15 read-option plays against Baltimore, averaging 6.2 yards a pop. Griffin ran seven times for 34 yards before suffering a fourth-quarter knee injury, and running back Alfred Morris picked up 129 yards. Between Griffin and Morris on the ground, and five receivers who caught at least one pass for more than 20 yards, the ’Skins produced 423 yards in their 31-28 overtime victory.

Nobody will be dumbfounded by the threat of the read-option today — Lewis, whatever else he may be as the “spiritual leader” of the Baltimore defense, is smart and shrewd — but it’s fair to wonder if the Ravens’ savvy can compensate for legs that have lost a step.

Lewis is 37, at the end of his 17-season road. Reed is 34, in his 11th season. Nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu, also 34, is a 10-year veteran, as is linebacker Terrell Suggs. At 29, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata might look like a relative pup, but he’s still another Ravens star in the declining phase of a terrific career.

Give Baltimore’s “Over The Hill Gang” defense this much: It already has survived such quarterbacks as Andrew Luck at Indianapolis, Peyton Manning at Denver and Tom Brady at New England — where the Patriots’ no-huddle attack was shut down in the second half.

But unlike Luck, Manning and Brady, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick is mobile in the pocket and as fast as a wide receiver when he escapes it. The Ravens will try to blitz Kaepernick silly, counting on the second-year quarterback to show the rattled nerves in the Super Bowl he has yet to show during the two playoff games that preceded it.

Don’t be surprised if Kaepernick throws an early interception. And don’t be surprised if he shrugs it off and earns MVP honors.

Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s counterpart, Joe Flacco, owns the league’s most powerful arm and a new-found trust in its consistency. But will he have time to use it?

Sure, outside linebacker Aldon Smith isn’t an impact pass rusher unless defensive end Justin Smith is playing at 100 percent — and Justin Smith hasn’t been 100 percent since tearing a triceps in December — but the 49ers’ blitz package is predicated on more than the Smiths. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are candidates to crash into the Ravens’ backfield on any play.

Running back Ray Rice could be in for a laborious afternoon. He’ll want to carry the ball and serve as a target for the occasional outlet pass, but if the 49ers storm the gaps, Rice will be needed to pick up the blitz.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is known for embracing innovation, but the sophistication of the 49ers’ playbook belies their raw physical power on both sides of the line. The schemes might qualify as cutting edge, but the premise behind the schemes is ancient: hit ’em, and then hit ’em again, once more, with feeling.

As for destiny?

The former Cleveland Browns were renamed the Ravens in reference to that most famous of poems by Edgar Allen Poe, a Baltimore resident who died in 1849 — the year fortune seekers rushed to California in search of gold.

The fortune seekers were called “49ers.”

Make of that what you will. I make it 49ers 31, Ravens 17.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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