Each day this week, reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday's Super Bowl. Today, he looks at how the 49ers may try to keep Ravens running back Ray Rice out of the end zone.
In Ray Rice, the Ravens have one of the NFL's most versatile playmakers, a running back who is capable of grinding out tough yards between the tackles and producing big plays outside of them. He is a slippery runner inside the red zone. And he is one of few legit runners who can also flex out wide and do damage as a receiver.
Rice will be the most dangerous offensive player on the field Sunday, but the last running back to be named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was Terrell Davis 15 years ago. The odds are stacked heavily against Rice bucking that trend on Sunday -- and no, it's not just because quarterbacks are usually the ones who take home the hardware.
The Ravens' opponent Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers, is known for a brick wall of a defensive front that helped them rank second in fewest points allowed and third in total defense during the regular season. And when it comes to stopping the run, 49ers inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are often immovable objects, blocking running backs like Rice from escaping into the open field.
"Tremendous linebackers. Outstanding tacklers," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said. "They're not necessarily guys that come in with reckless abandon to blow up a running back. They come in with good, clean, hard tackles. You can tell they're very well coached in the fundamentals of playing linebacker. You see very few missed tackles from those inside linebackers. I guess that's the reason they're All-Pros and don't leave the field."
A DUAL-THREAT RUNNING BACK
Rice, whom the Ravens locked down with a lucrative contract extension last July, had another strong regular season and was voted to his third Pro Bowl in four years. Often running behind fullback Vonta Leach, who was also selected to another Pro Bowl, Rice, a fifth-year running back, rushed for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns and added 478 receiving yards and another touchdown on 61 receptions. Combined, he averaged 101.3 yards per scrimmage per game, which was eighth among running backs.
Rice's big plays are well-documented on the highlight shows -- including the playoffs, he has made a dozen plays that gained 27 or more yards -- but the best example of what Rice is capable of doing as a receiver came in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers. On a do-or-die fourth-and-29 play, Rice caught a desperation dump-off near the line of scrimmage, danced around several defenders and dove through a pair of Chargers to improbably get the nose of the football past the marker. Few, if any, other running backs have the skill set and the determination to make a play like that.
"I like to catch the ball. I don't mind catching them," Rice told reporters Wednesday. "A catch for me is like a long hand-off. Once I get it, the stat book says different, but you can make a big play on a catch."
Rice leads the NFL with 247 rushing yards this postseason, but he also has received more carries (64) than any other back and is averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. His backup, rookie Bernard Pierce, has actually rushed for more yards in the team's past five games, but the fact that Pierce has also been productive isn't necessarily a bad thing. Over that span, the duo has combined for 740 yards on the ground.
Pierce and his physical style of play is a nice change of pace from Rice. But make no mistake, the 49ers will put the bulls-eye on Rice in the Super Bowl. He is still the most dangerous of Joe Flacco's weapons.
THE LEAGUE'S BEST LINEBACKERS
The best inside linebacker in football will be wearing a No. 52 jersey in Sunday's Super Bowl. I'm not talking about Ray Lewis. That distinction goes to Willis, "a young lion" who is one of many younger players who Lewis advises. Willis wears No. 52 for a reason, and some have labeled him "the next Ray Lewis." Instinctive and rangy, Willis can make plays from sideline to sideline and fill the stat sheet in many ways.
"He is a younger Ray Lewis," Leach said last week. "He's like what Ray has been doing for a long time."
Willis' partner on the inside, Bowman, is an All-Pro, too, as is pass rusher extraordinaire Aldon Smith. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is the only one of the group that isn't a Pro Bowler, but he's no slouch, either. Together, that starting quartet is a talented, versatile group that rarely comes off the field.
The 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing defense during the regular season, allowing just 94.2 yards per game. They are particularly effective when they funnel running backs inside to Willis and Bowman, who have missed just 16 tackles combined, according to Pro Football Focus. Opposing backs have averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry running between the tackles, but they have averaged more than 4.5 on the outside.
San Francisco also ranked fourth against the pass during the regular season. Smith and Brooks terrorized quarterbacks and had 26 sacks between them. Willis and Bowman are three-down inside linebackers who can cover. Willis usually draws the assignment of the opposing tight end, and Bowman, who led the 49ers in tackles and finished second in the NFL, is tasked with running alongside shifty backs like Rice.
But Rice, who has caught just four passes this postseason, doubts that Willis or Bowman can cover him.
"This game will come down to matchups," he said. "In the run game, the linebackers, they might get their fair share of plays, they might make some tackles, but there comes a point in the game when you have to cover me. ... I don't think a lot of linebackers can cover me, not just the 49ers. Linebackers are built a different way. They're built to tackle. They're not built to cover, so when I've got them man-to-man, I have to win my fair share."
KEEPING RICE UNDER WRAPS
For what it is worth -- I obviously think it is worth a lot or I wouldn't be quoting him -- Jaworski likes Rice's chances if the 49ers stick to their typical man coverage. He also thinks Dennis Pitta could have a big game, too.
"They're going to run those wheel routes [with Rice]. They're going to run their shot plays. They're going to run their wheel routes with Dennis Pitta, as well," he said. "Clearly, I think they will not only look at Torrey Smith down the field on those explosive plays and Jacoby Jones deep down the field, but if they can get those matchups with Pitta on a linebacker or Ray Rice on a linebacker versus man coverage, they will take their shots."
But when it comes to running the ball -- something the Ravens have done on 48 percent of their plays under new coordinator Jim Caldwell and something Rice gets paid a lot of money to do -- the 49ers linebackers will likely give up little ground. Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said "you just do your best" when blocking them.
"You come up there and look at the reads, try to get on the right aiming point, and you just try to finish the block from there. Just their vision, and when they need to be physical, they can bring it. When they need to run, they can run. When they need to juke you to make you miss, they can do all three of those really well," Yanda said. "I'm not going to be able to just come up to them and knock the snot out of them because he's going to make me miss. You've got to respect them because they're great players."
During the regular season, the Ravens offensive line ranked 14th in adjusted line yards, a useful stat from Football Outsiders, and they also ranked 14th when it came to second-level yards. The 49ers are among the league's best at denying access to the second level because Willis and Bowman are so savvy.
"If you watch the film on them, one thing you notice is that they don't attack the line of scrimmage. Normally, you always say if you're a linebacker to read, run, attack. Those guys read more and almost play off their defensive linemen," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said. "They read that then attack. So therefore, it's harder to double-team them, just because they always keep a little space between them and they're great athletes."
Rice recognizes that, too, which is why he knows his rushing numbers might be down in the Super Bowl. But he and his bruising fullback and a surging offensive line don't plan on going down Sunday without a fight.
"This defense just takes what's there -- maybe it's two yards, maybe it's three," Rice said. "You have to make the best of those situations. We know it's not going to be easy at all, but it is the Super Bowl, and you have to go out there and give it your best shot at whatever you do because there is no tomorrow after the Super Bowl."