Heading into Super Bowl XLVII, one of the crucial matchups is Baltimore running back Ray Rice versus the San Francisco defense. Rice, the diminutive-yet-powerful former All-Pro, has seen his touches rise meteorically since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator for Cam Cameron. The Ravens, as a result, have hovered around the 450-yard mark for total offense per game, and the offense has been especially efficient in the red zone. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in red-zone running.
This week, that efficiency will match up against the 49ers, who rank second in red-zone defense against the run.
While San Francisco has found great success employing a two-deep cover shell in the secondary, its elite units on defense are its front four and linebacking core. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks this season, but isn't deft against the run, nor is fellow defensive end Justin Smith. However, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the fastest and best 1-2 linebacking duo in football -- not to mention Ahmad Brooks, another stud who can fly.
The key to Baltimore's offense under Caldwell has been balance. Joe Flacco has been playing out of his mind and hasn't had a turnover in five straight games. This is due in part to the fact that Caldwell splits his play-calls almost down the middle between running and throwing, at 49 percent and 51 percent respectively, whereas Cameron called pass plays 60 percent of the time. Flacco, with a deep throw an ever-present threat, excels in play-action, particularly against a stacked box. Moreover, with Michael Oher moving from left to right tackle this season, the Ravens' line has allowed a loss or no gain only 11 percent of the time on rush attempts, a league low (per ESPN Stats & Info).
Baltimore, unlike Atlanta, is not a spread offense. At most, it will feature three wide receiver sets, with Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta in the slot. The Ravens prefer to use two tight ends, adding Ed Dickson as an extra blocker and occasional releaser.
All of this favors Rice.
In essence, the scheme will force the first two levels of the 49ers defense to make plays before Rice can get a head of steam. San Francisco (per ESPN) allowed an NFL-low 1.21 yards after contact this year, while Rice was ranked fifth-worst among eligible RBs in that category. The counter for Caldwell is to use Rice's unique pass-catching ability out of the backfield and force linebackers to make plays in space. When they get tired, he can use Rice to pound the line in the second half and on third-and-short or -medium.
Then again, consider that 49ers' opponents this season have failed to average 100 rushing yards a game.