Super Bowl Preview
Bill Barnwell [ARCHIVE]
February 1, 2013
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The last time a Super Bowl vaguely resembled the pregame plan was in February of 2007, when the Colts faded a kickoff return on the opening play of the game from the best return man in the history of football and rode their huge quarterback advantage to a win. Otherwise, for about a 10-year stretch now, Super Bowl previews have borne no resemblance to the game that's actually played out on the field. Nobody saw the Patriots' game plan coming to knock down Marshall Faulk in 2002. Presumably, no scribes suggested that Raiders head coach Bill Callahan was going to deliberately try to throw the Super Bowl the following year. Even when the favorite has covered the spread, the game has had some major quirk corrupt things. Ben Roethlisberger's two-pick, 29.3–passer rating game against the Seahawks. The injuries to Charles Woodson and Sam Shields tearing the Green Bay pass defense apart against those same Steelers years later (with Green Bay still holding up to win).
Of course, that's not stopping anybody from writing or reading Super Bowl previews. I don't know that there's something innately different about the Super Bowl, that pregame trends and levels of performance get muddied amid the pressure of the biggest game in most players' lives and produce a contest that bears little resemblance to expectations, but I can see the argument. Maybe if you took the Monday Night Football game from Week 9 each year and compared it to how each of those teams did over the remainder of the year, it would stand out as odd in the same way that these last dozen Super Bowls or so have stood out. Somebody like me would point out that the 10 Super Bowls at the end of the last century roughly amounted to chalk; outside of the one major upset (Broncos-Packers) and one minor one (Giants-Bills), the favorites cleaned up and the Super Bowl had a very boring decade.
The only thing I'm really confident about heading into Sunday is that Harbaugh Bowl II won't look much like Harbaugh Bowl I. That game was 14 months ago, but both the 49ers and Ravens have undergone fundamental shifts in terms of their personnel and style of play in the meantime. Baltimore evolved after injuries threatened their viability; San Francisco evolved by using an injury as an excuse to try to become a better long-term team. They each have an impressive blowout and an even more impressive comeback on their résumé this postseason, but to win a Super Bowl, they'll have to do the one thing nobody's done during these playoffs: beat a Harbaugh.
Back to Basics
As important as it is to win after the ball's snapped, teams can do a lot of good for themselves by dictating matchups and personnel sets that are in their favor before plays even begin. During this postseason, the Ravens have had to contend with the Broncos and Patriots — teams who try to create mismatches against tired defenses by running different sorts of no-huddle attacks. Baltimore has been able to withstand those attacks by staying in a Nickel defense that has done a good job of matching up against the sorts of personnel sets the Broncos and Patriots tend to run. In the Super Bowl, don't be surprised if the 49ers try to attack the Ravens with a seemingly counterintuitive strategy: forcing them back into their traditional 3-4 alignment. Grantland on Super Bowl XLVII
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San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore.
My estimate is that the Ravens have had five defensive backs out in the familiar Nickel package on about 76 percent of their defensive snaps this postseason. At this point, the Nickel might actually be their best personnel package by virtue of playing to many of its players' strengths. It allows Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger to focus on rushing the passer and moves the somewhat undersized Corey Graham into the slot, where he's done great work this postseason. When Baltimore moves into the 3-4, they swap out a cornerback — usually Chykie Brown — for a nose tackle, either Terrence Cody or Ma'ake Kemoeatu, while moving Graham to the outside. To tell the truth, Brown has been better at corner this year than Cody or Kemoeatu have been up front. Haloti Ngata also hasn't been at 100 percent for months now, and the 3-4 virtually requires him to be present for the Ravens.
While the Broncos and Patriots often like to stretch defenses by adding receivers, the 49ers are likely to show off...
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