HarBowl Preview: Top Ten Things to Look for when SF Battles Baltimore for Lombardi Trophy
When the San Francisco 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's Super Bowl for the Lombardi Trophy, the stories about 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh will have been told. Features about Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will have been aired and questions about deer antler spray will have been asked. San Francisco's pistol formation will have been analyzed. Here are ten other things to look for when watching the game.
1. Baltimore vs. Kaepernick
When the Green Bay Packers, in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, tried to take away the 49ers' running game, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran wild, rushing for 181 yards and two touchdowns and passing for 263 yards an another touchdown. When the Falcons, in the NFC title game, focused on Kaepernick, 49ers running back Frank Gore scored two crucial touchdowns and running back LaMichael James scored another one as well. Those two games represented why the "pistol" formation is so dangerous. Defenses are often forced to pick their poison.
The Ravens may decide that it may be a better to focus more on the 49ers' running backs and take away their running game. While Kaepernick has been tough to hit, letting Kaepernick go into the open field will leave him vulnerable to some hits by some of the game's fiercest-hitting defenders. The Ravens decide that hitting Kaepernick may be the best way to slow down or contain the versatile quarterback.
2. Baltimore's versatile defense
With players like all-world defensive back Ed Reed, legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, who is the only NFL player in history who has recored more than 40 sacks and 30 interceptions, and defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who can also go out in coverage, the Ravens may present looks that could confuse a quarterback who is only making his tenth career start.
3. The Kickers: San Francisco's David Akers vs. Baltimore's Justin Tucker
When embattled 49ers kicker David Akers, who missed the most field goals this season in the NFL after recovering from an injury, lines up for a field goal, nobody will feel more pressure than San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, known for making gutsy personnel moves--like replacing quarterback Alex Smith with Kaepernick--decided to stick with Akers even though the kicker is the most expendable position on the football team. If the 49ers lose because Akers misses field goals--in a dome, no less--Harbaugh will get plenty of blame.
Meanwhile, his brother John Harbaugh made a gutsy decision in the preseason when he cut veteran kicker Billy Cundiff in favor of a rookie kicker out of Texas--Justin Tucker. Tucker kicked a 47-yard, game-winning field goal in double overtime in the divisional round of the playoffs against Denver.
4. Randy Moss vs. Ed Reed
While the storylines have centered around Ray Lewis and Colin Kaepernick, Randy Moss and Ed Reed are two of the greatest players on their respective sides of the ball to have never won a Super Bowl. One of them finally will. Moss put pressure on himself this week when he said he was the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game, forgetting the 49ers once had Jerry Rice, who won three Super Bowls. Reed also put his name in the news when the hard-hitting defensive back seemed to agree with President Barack Obama's comments about being hesitant before letting his sons play football.
5. San Francisco's Chris Culliver vs. Baltimore's Brendon Ayanbadejo
Earlier this week, Chris Culliver told a shock jock radio host that gay players would not be welcomed in NFL locker rooms. He backtracked and apologized for those comments and said he would undergo sensitivity training. Meanwhile, the Ravens have linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has been vocal about his support of gay marriage. Look for the mainstream media to frame this matchup as a "good versus evil" battle.
6. Baltimore General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell
The first two players Newsome, the former Alabama and Cleveland Browns player, ever drafted were Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. On Saturday, Ogden, the offensive lineman out of UCLA, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lewis will end his career on Sunday as one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. Before the playoffs, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who had been known as an offensive guru, because the Ravens offense had been inconsistent at best and lethargic at worse. He replaced him with Caldwell. And since Caldwell has taken over, Flacco has looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the league and has probably made millions of dollars for his next contract during this playoff run. Newsome and Caldwell are both black in a league that has come under fire for its lack of black general managers and coaches. Caldwell is one of the few black coaches with play-calling responsibilities. Look for this storyline to get more legs if the Ravens win, especially since the NFL is considering expanding the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview a minority before hiring a head coach, to assistant coaching positions.
7. Player Safety Issues
San Francisco and Baltimore play smashmouth styles of football. Because of this style of play, safety issues in football--especially concerning head injuries--will be discussed, as there will be many old-school, bone-crunching hits in this game. President Barack Obama's remarks last week about changes possibly coming to football to reduce the game's "violence" also sparked discussions about player safety. So did Ravens' linebacker Bernard Pollard's remarks about how he believes an NFL player will die on the field and football will not be around in 30 years. In addition, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was inserted into the starting lineup only after quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion and took himself out of the game. Look for the announcers to bring that incident up as well.
8. Pistol Formation as the New West Coast Offense
If the San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl with the pistol formation, more teams in the league may implement the pistol, just as teams followed the 49ers and their unstoppable West Coast Offense, which was ushered in by the legendary head coach Bill Walsh.
9. Flacco vs. Kaepernick
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is a traditional pocket passer while San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a "new age" quarterback who can run and throw. Since the Ravens and the 49ers have traditional--and extremely stout--defenses, it will be fascinating to see these two completely different quarterbacks go against similar defenses.
San Francisco - running back LaMichael James
If the Ravens stymie the 49ers' game plan, James, a threat every time he touches the ball, can be the difference. Further, James can read the read-option better than San Francisco running back Frank Gore because James was in a read-option offense in college at Oregon.
Baltimore - wide receiver Jacoby Jones
Like James, he is a threat every time he touches the ball or the ball is thrown to him. He can ignite the Ravens' offense by touching the ball just once.
San Francisco - defensive lineman Justin Smith
When Smith went out with an injury, San Francisco's defenders, most notably linebacker Aldon Smith, struggled. Smith is the disruptor that allows the other defenders to better succeed in their roles.
Baltimore -- linebacker Paul Kruger
When San Francisco tries to throw the ball up the middle or attempt short slant passes, look for Kruger to deflect some passes. He has shown a knack this season for being at the right place at the right time with his instincts on defense.
Fun Fact: The first player Ray Lewis ever sacked was Jim Harbaugh. In 1996, Lewis was playing for the Ravens and Harbaugh with the Indianapolis Colts.