Monday, January 28, 2013

Ravens beguiling as Super Bowl outsiders

Every team playing the San Francisco 49ers is warned about their defense. The potency of a single entity hasn’t received this much hype since Ryan Gosling came onto the scene.

So let’s firstly tip our hat to the likes of defensive end Justin Smith, who with torn triceps is still the glue of a stout Niners line. The front seven will certainly penetrate the Baltimore Ravens’ wall on Super Bowl Sunday. They will race toward the unhurried Baltimore quarterback, Joe Flacco, and try to absorb the human cannonball, Ray Rice. And, if that strategy falls short, then the 49ers linebacker await, like lasers protecting a vault. Nobody but Catherine Zeta-Jones in those black tights could break through. That’s what I hear, anyway.

Contrary to popular belief and reams of stats, both of which tell us the 49ers’ defense ranks among the league’s strongest, San Francisco has its flaws. While its front is bulky and relentless, and its linebackers scarier than NFL veterans squeezed behind pre-game desks, the secondary is vulnerable. Try plough the ball up the middle, as the Atlanta Falcons did during the NFC championship game, and the San Francisco line will arrive faster than the gold diggers of 1849 to California. 

But on the post route---straight upfield and then inside---or on any variation of a deep ball, the team’s secondary can be caught napping. Sure, Dashon Goldson and Terrell Brown make tackles, but the ball moves faster than the player, and few move it beyond defensive backs like Flacco.

The trouble is the Niners corners aren’t brawny, so larger receivers can outmuscle them, even if they correctly read a throw. This means if Flacco can lead his wideouts---especially the speedy Torrey Smith and the soft-handed Anquan Boldin---deep and away from the safeties, I fully expect the Ravens to tear up the Niners back end.

Ultimately, once the smoke clears from the fireworks and Ray Lewis has finished his Fred Astaire impression, I think Baltimore’s defense takes centre stage. Their key men are slower, yes, and greyer, sure, but this is just one game folks. And when you’re playing for your legacy, as Lewis is, not even Jim Harbaugh’s bravado is going to save you.

I know what you’re thinking, especially if you are one of those people who has fallen for Niners quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. He’s tall, lean and illusive, fleet-footed and hard to contain once he swings around the edge. That’s apparently his thing---circumnavigation. But from the pocket, the young quarterback has the same options as every other: a hand-off, a mimicked hand-off and a throw. It’s baffling that most defenses can’t work this out, isn’t it?

Well, most defenses, like that of the Green Bay Packers, or the New Orleans Saints, are average at best. They are not the black and blue Ravens. Everything changes in The Big One, we must remind ourselves. Ray Lewis, in his last hurrah, will hold in the hole (mostly because he’ll be gassed before the first whistle even blows!). Still, in this instance, while creakier and probably crabbier on a Sunday morning than most players, the Ravens will use all that’s left in the tank to snuff out Kaepernick and his high-stepping hoopla. 

Lewis, Terrell Suggs and company will be braced, both where they ache and for all oncoming runners, too. They may forgo some yards to Frank Gore, who is a bulldozer, but as long as the six-pointers are limited it won’t matter. 

Does anyone really have faith in David Akers at this stage anyway? 

Corey Graham and Cary Williams have been the playoffs’ best corners with 50 tackles and assists between them. They’ll make life hard for the Niners receivers. And for all the talk about Patrick Willis, a ferocious defender and intimidating presence, the Ravens linebackers are still the best in the business, almost purely because their reputation precedes them. It’s akin to Sir Anthony Hopkins now in the twilight of his career: at this point he could star in a Hot Tub Time Machine sequel and win an Oscar.

Listen, like you, I caught just a snippet of Lewis’ rantings after the championship game, but wasn’t it enough? 

The Ravens are on a mission to lose nevermore.

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