Though all eyes (and microphones) may be on Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers read-option attack this week, it's the 49ers defense that'll be tasked with stopping the suddenly high-octane Baltimore Ravens offense in Super Bowl XLVII.
The 49ers can score as many points and run as many exotic, untraditional plays on Sunday as they'd like. If the defense doesn't find a way to stop Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens passing attack -- something the Ravens' last three opponents haven't been able to do -- all those offensive fireworks will be for naught.
Make no mistake, this isn't your Ravens passing offense of old. It's not even the Ravens passing offense from December. This is a unit that's put up more total yards, more passing yards, and more points than any other team this postseason.
The 49ers players' respect the recent run Flacco and the Ravens offense is on.
"(Joe) Flacco's a good quarterback," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said on Sunday. "He's really becoming a quarterback of his own. He has a strong arm and there is no question about how far he can throw the ball and the strength of his arm. He can move a little bit. For us, we are going to have to play team football. Our coverages are going to have to be great and guys are going to have to get after him when they're rushing."
Though many will point to the midseason firing of Cam Cameron and subsequent promotion of Jim Caldwell as the chief reason for Baltimore's recent offensive uptick, there was a subtle move made at the end of the regular season that's paid dividends as well. The week before the Ravens' 24-9 wild card win over the Indianapolis Colts, John Harbaugh moved veteran Bryant McKinnie to left offensive tackle, Michael Oher to right tackle, and slid rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard.
How'd that roll of the dice work out? In the three games since the shakeup, Flacco's been sacked just four times. In truth, no one's gotten to Flacco this month. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney got very little pressure in the wild card round, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were both invisible up in Denver and we heard very little from any of the Patriots pass rushers in the AFC Championship Game. No one's really ruffled Flacco's feathers.
The 49ers defense knows that they have to do just that come Sunday.
Alas, the 49ers pass rush hasn't been the same since Justin Smith went down with a triceps injury in the second half of San Francisco's Week 14 win over the Patriots in Foxboro.
In their first 13 games of the 2012 season, the 49ers defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times. In the five games since Smith's injury, including the playoffs, the 49ers pass rush has compiled just four sacks.
"That's just a straight statistic, but what you don't always see is teams play us a little bit differently," Smith said on Sunday. "Quarterbacks drift on us a little bit more, and we've been playing some really good quarterbacks in [Matt] Ryan and [Aaron] Rodgers. They're timing guys. They're getting rid of the ball quick. They do their job really well as well, so it makes our job a little bit tougher."
Aldon Smith, not Justin, is the player who's been under the microscope. Voted by his teammates as the team's 2012 MVP, Smith hasn't been the same sack master he was over the first half of the season. Once on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5, the second-year linebacker from Missouri hasn't recorded a sack since Week 13. He's been stuck on 19.5 since mid-December.
Though his face has been on the equivalent to an NFL box score milk carton since Christmas, coach Jim Harbaugh insists that looking at sack totals is not the best way to assess an pass rusher's impact.
Asked about Smith's lack of recent sacks and pass rushing "production", the coach pointed to his effort against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
"He had a number of pressures and hurries and he played the run extremely well," Harbaugh said. "With Justin not being in there, that probably plays a part. But the play of Aldon has been really good -- he got a game ball for his performance in the Falcons game, because he had a lot of pressures and hurries. He also played the run extremely well and recovered a fumble -- overall, he did a really thorough job and had a good game."
"Not having the sacks there -- that low-hanging fruit that people see, they don't always see the things Aldon's doing so well," Harbaugh said. "That's why [his teammates] voted him the Most Valuable Player."
"He's always doing his job," teammate NoVorro Bowman said of Smith. "That's pretty much an MVP. He's always doing his job, you don't really have to say too much to him and he's always producing. When we need a big play, he's always able to produce that. He's very worthy of that award."
Justin Smith didn't want to hear about the younger Smith's recent disappearing act from the box score, either. "Aldon, just in this last game, he was getting lots of pressure," Smith said on Sunday. "They know when you're playing a guy like that, he's going to get more attention, more chipping, he's going to bring the line over there a little more. What the quarterback knows too is that you have to get rid of the ball. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't have a clock that goes off when you're practicing against a guy like Aldon. The ball has to come out in three seconds."
Smith, himself, does not seem overly concerned with the lack of sacks showing up in the box scores of late, "I think besides the quarterbacks throwing the ball [quicker] and me getting double-teamed and triple-teamed -- I'm getting back there and creating pressure and making quarterbacks uncomfortable," he said on Monday. "I think the job's still getting done. The sacks are still happening -- I might not be getting them, but somebody is. Really, I think you just saw the attention shift a little bit. Teams were bringing more guys over there [to him], or just changing the way they block."
The big "What's wrong with the 49ers pass rush?" question that's been floating around media circles this month hasn't affected the 49ers one bit. It's not even an issue. From the coach to the veteran leader to the sack master gone silent, there's a real "nothing to see here" attitude surrounding all the recent concern from outside forces.
After all, the guy everyone's concerned about? The one that's been missing from the box scores? His teammates just named him the squad's MVP.
The 49ers know they've got to get to Joe Flacco. They know the sack totals haven't been there of late.
They're also confident in their abilities as a pass rushing unit.
"Preparation, work. We do this. We're football players. Guys who want to compete, guys who want to make the next big play," Bowman said on Monday. "On some defenses, you have one or two playmakers, one or two guys who you know are trying to make a play. On our defense, I think we have 11 guys out there that are trying to make a play, that are trying to get the crowd into it, try to make sure that we're communicating well. Just do all the things well, and I think that's what makes us a great defense."
Save the "low-hanging fruit" for another defensive unit and another head coach.
This one's good to go.