Each day this week, Baltimore Sun reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday's Super Bowl. Today, he looks at the battle between the Ravens and 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith.
The Ravens offensive line was dented by pass rushers and pinged by critiques from armchair quarterbacks during the regular season, but that all changed four weeks ago when the team inserted Bryant McKinnie back into the starting lineup. The lethargic left tackle made his first start of the season in the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts, and the revamped line got the job done in wins in Denver and New England, too.
Their performance in the victory over the Broncos stood out the most, as McKinnie and the Ravens steered sack specialist Von Miller and teammate Elvis Dumervil clear of quarterback Joe Flacco during regulation play.
The Ravens -- McKinnie, in particular -- will face another tough test in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The 49ers have one of the most physical and effective fronts in the NFL, and they have one of the most feared pass rushers in football in outside linebacker Aldon Smith. The 49ers will sometimes move Smith, who was second in the NFL in sacks during the regular season, to different spots on their defensive line. But most of the time, Smith will try to escape the grasp of McKinnie and wrap his arms around Flacco.
"Clearly, their joker is going to be Aldon Smith," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said. "The majority of the time, he'll be at right defensive end, right outside linebacker. But they'll move him around. You'll see him on the left side. You'll see him standing up in the middle. You'll see him in the two-point stance over the guard. He's their joker. They feel that with his speed and quickness, he can impact the quarterback quickly."
LIVING ON THE EDGE
When the 49ers drafted Smith, who starred in college at Missouri, seventh overall in the 2011 NFL draft, some analysts compared him to Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. A few others called him a project, one that might never reach its completion. Smith made an immediate impact with 14 sacks, the most among rookies, and two more in the postseason.
This season, the 49ers moved Smith all over their front, and he terrorized opposing offensive linemen of all shapes and sizes with 19.5 sacks, second to only Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. Smith's sack total was four shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record, but still good enough to tie Ware and others for the 10th-highest total in NFL history (well, at least since they started keeping track of sacks).
"That's a lot of sacks. I don't know if you knew that, but that's pretty close to the record. I mean, shoot, you're talking about one of the greatest seasons in history," center Matt Birk said. "He definitely gets after the quarterback. He's a super talented guy and he plays with other guys who are talented. You can't just focus on one guy because they can all get after the passer and open up things for each other."
A "game-wrecker" in the Ravens' lexicon, Smith blew up the Chicago Bears' game plan in Week 11, racking up 5.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles in a 32-7 win. Only one Ravens player had more than 5.5 sacks during the entire regular season.
"He's young. He has long arms. He's fast. He has good counter moves," McKinnie said, giving his full scouting report in about 2 1/2 seconds, the amount of time it usually takes Smith to get to a quarterback.
Overall, Pro Football Focus credited Smith with 70 total pressures during the regular season, the most among outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme and in the top 10 among all pass rushers.
Smith was credited with seven total pressures in San Francisco's win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, but Smith has not dragged down a quarterback in his past five games. The Ravens, who have built a wall around Flacco in these playoffs, hope to make it six in a row in the Super Bowl.
THE BIG SWITCHEROO
Several things have propelled the Ravens to the Super Bowl, but the biggest change, literally speaking at least, was the offensive line overhaul that coach John Harbaugh signed off on before the wild-card round.
The Ravens inserted McKinnie, who is listed (perhaps generously) at 360 pounds on the team's website, at left tackle and moved Michael Oher to right tackle after Oher was beat for 10 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the third-highest total during the regular season. Second-round draft pick Kelechi Osemele, who had an up-and-down rookie season (mostly up) at right tackle, then filled a huge void at left guard.
After getting sacked 35 times during the regular season -- only seven starting quarterbacks endured more sacks -- Flacco has been sacked just four times in three playoff games. Flacco has been pressured a total of 23 times in those games, according to Pro Football Focus, which is an average of about four fewer pressures per game than what Flacco faced during the regular season, before the big switch was made.
"They've been playing really well together, so you've got to give the credit to those guys," Flacco said.
Those clean pockets have played a significant role, of course, in Flacco throwing eight touchdown passes this postseason without an interception. If the offensive line can protect Flacco for 60 more minutes Sunday, he might make a run at Joe Montana's NFL record of 11 touchdown passes in one postseason.
None of that will come easy, though, against Smith and a San Francisco defense that Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said will be the most complete one the Ravens will have faced all season.
KEEPING FLACCO CLEAN
The 49ers defense is a lot more than Smith -- the Ravens actually have two Smiths to watch out for -- but Aldon Smith accounted for just over half of their 38 sacks during the regular season, which was tied for 11th in the NFL. Defensive end Justin Smith's production is down -- blame it on a torn triceps that could have ended his season -- but when healthy, he is capable of being a game-wrecker, too. He often lines up next to Aldon Smith, giving the 49ers an inside-outside pass-rushing duo that rivals Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs.
Still, the X-factor for the 49ers defense is Aldon Smith, who is a 6-foot-4, 258-pound freak of an athlete. He has the speed to beat blockers off the edge, and his bull-rush move is formidable.
In their 3-4 base defense, he stands up as a linebacker. But when they go with their nickel packages, the 49ers will use a four-man front with Smith lining up as a defensive end. They don't need to blitz very often, as 34 of his 35.5 career sacks came when part of a four-or-fewer man pass rush, according to ESPN stats and Info.
"The Ravens offensive line has played very well through the playoffs. I'm not overly concerned," Jaworski said when asked if their offensive tackles could handle Smith in the Super Bowl. "But I always think it's good to have a plan, that if he is getting quick pressure, that you have a tight end or a back in to help [McKinnie]."
According to Jaworski, the Falcons shifted their line protection to Smith's side, with their left tackle, left guard and center zone-blocking to wall off the left side of the line. "It was a pretty effective way to negate those stunts between Justin Smith and Aldon Smith," he added. The right guard and right tackle handled the other side, often getting help from a back or a tight end to chip Ahmad Brooks, the outside linebacker opposite Aldon Smith. "I thought it was a pretty good plan," Jaworski said. And it was. Matt Ryan was sacked just once.
The Ravens must come up with a similar plan to take care of Smith, said Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who doesn't believe that McKinnie -- who was beaten for a sack and allowed four other pressures in the AFC championship game, per Pro Football Focus -- can be left alone to block Smith 1-on-1 when Flacco takes deep drops.
He seemed to think that what the Falcons did -- sliding three men toward Smith -- might be the best approach.
"If you slide your line to Smith and you chip Brooks, you're not losing any eligible receivers in your pass game because the chipper then goes right out into a route," Cosell said. "I think that's critical to have five guys [running] routes. There are many tactical ways to do it, in my opinion, but you don't want to do is create a situation where you're asking Bryant McKinnie to block him one-on-one on deep drops."
Because all it takes is one blown block and one big sack for Smith and the 49ers to wreck the best-laid plans.