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Lamar Jackson and Ravens prepare for a mighty test against ultra-fast 49ers defense

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks to the press about the injury to Matt Skura, the play of the wide receivers, and his goal to play in the Super Bowl.

Talent knows talent, so Lamar Jackson did not mince words describing the difficulties posed by the San Francisco 49ers.

“Speed,” the Ravens’ burgeoning MVP front-runner said when asked what jumps out to him about his team’s next opponent. “All 11 to the ball, that popped out on the screen, and their front four is dangerous. They’ve been No. 1 in almost all aspects, statistical-wise, and it shows on film.”

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Whenever leading contenders from the AFC and NFC match up late in the season, talk of a possible Super Bowl preview ensues. That hype is all the more concentrated this week because the Ravens (9-2) and 49ers (10-1) are both coming off crushing prime-time victories over big-name opponents. When the NFL released its schedule in April, few people circled this Dec. 1 contest featuring two teams that many analysts had missing the playoffs. Now, some are calling it the game of the year.

Ravens-49ers is more than a superficial feast; it’s one of the tastiest offense vs. defense match-ups in recent memory.

The Ravens lead the league in scoring and yards per game, have averaged 43 points over their last four victories and feature the most talked about highlight machine in the league in Jackson.

The 49ers allow the least yards per game, the second fewest points per game and could send as many as six defensive starters to the Pro Bowl.

“I think it’s great for both teams where we’re both at,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I know both cities are very excited, and I know that carries over to our fans and coaches, too. But, yeah, it’s going to be a cool matchup going against a team this good with both of our teams and the records we have. … It’s exactly what you ask for and what you try to sign up for.”

Analytics suggest both teams have a chance to be historically good. Using the DVOA statistic for overall efficiency created by FootballOutsiders.com, the Ravens and 49ers delivered the two best single-game performances of the 2019 season on Sunday night and Monday night, respectively. Of all the teams measured since 1985, the Ravens have the 12th best total DVOA through 11 games. The 49ers have the ninth best defensive DVOA through 11 games (one spot behind the 2008 Ravens).

Every week now seems to feature a hyped battle for the Ravens: Jackson vs. Russell Wilson, Jackson vs. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, streaking Ravens vs. complacency (aka the winless Cincinnati Bengals), Jackson vs. DeShaun Watson, Greg Roman’s offense vs. Aaron Donald.

But Ravens vs. 49ers feels like a legitimate clash of the titans, with the NFL’s hottest offense going against a defense that hunts quarterbacks like a pride of hungry lions.

“Fast, aggressive, physical,” Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV said when asked to describe the 49ers. “Their front seven is pretty stout. And they come in here with that swagger like they expect to win. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it. We respect the heck out of them, because, shoot, they’re 10-1. They deserve that. So, when they come to The Bank [M&T Bank Stadium], they’re going to get our best, and we expect to get their best.”

There haven’t been a lot of bad weeks on Jackson’s early NFL resume, but his most difficult games have come against teams with unusually athletic front sevens.

When the Los Angeles Chargers harassed Jackson into an interception and three fumbles in the Ravens’ playoff loss last season, much was made of the way defensive coordinator Gus Bradley used seven defensive backs to counter Jackson’s speed. Afterward, however, the Ravens were more frustrated with their difficulties blocking the Chargers, led by Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, upfront.

More recently, Jackson had one of his worst performances of this season (three interceptions and five sacks) against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage.

Statistically, at least, the 49ers are better than either. They lead the league in sacks and pressure percentage and rank second in third-down defense while blitzing less frequently than all but two other teams in the league. That means their defensive linemen repeatedly win one-on-one match-ups.

It’s the payoff the 49ers sought when they used first-round picks on defensive linemen four of the last five years. Those high picks — Arik Armstead (17th overall), DeForest Buckner (seventh overall), Solomon Thomas (third overall) and Nick Bosa (second overall) — have combined for 25 ½ sacks and 42 quarterback hits this season. And that doesn’t include defensive end Dee Ford, whom they acquired for a second-round pick in the offseason, but won’t play against the Ravens because of a hamstring injury.

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“I give them a lot of credit,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They decided that they were going to build a great defensive front with those picks they had, and they did it. And they all panned out. They're all good players.”

Because they’re so talented upfront, the 49ers rarely hang their defensive backs out to dry. And they’re nearly as good on the back end as they are at the line of scrimmage, with cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Jimmie Ward both grading among the top players at their positions, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Most teams that have that type of front four — and can get to the quarterback with a front four — are usually up there defensively on the year,” Shanahan said. “Then when you add in our secondary and sound coverages we have, and some of the players on our back end, the way we’ve been able to mix some stuff up while still staying sound, I think it’s allowed us to get a huge jump this year.”

That said, the Ravens have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic. They’ve trampled good competition, hanging 37 points on a New England Patriots defense that’s better than San Francisco’s by many measures and scoring 45 against a Los Angeles Rams unit that features the NFL’s best individual defender in Donald.

The Ravens’ greatest strength, their versatile and overwhelming ground game, will go against the 49ers’ relative weakness, a mediocre run defense. San Francisco doesn’t have an inside run-stuffer on par with Pittsburgh’s Heyward or D.J. Reader of the Houston Texans. Not to mention the three highest scoring performances the 49ers have allowed have come against mobile quarterbacks: Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals. Murray and Wilson carried a combined 19 times for 154 yards against the San Francisco defense, and neither has been as dynamic a runner as Jackson, who’s on pace to demolish Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback.

Jackson said the Ravens won’t change what they do based on the speed of the 49ers defense; they’ll simply have to execute sharply, as they did against Donald and the Rams.

“I think every style of a defensive lineman brings its own problems,” Roman said. “Athletic — what does that mean, really? There’s strengths and weaknesses to everybody. You’ve just got to find the weaknesses.”

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