Before trying to establish their ground game, the 49ers will face the key issue of how to deal with an excitable young quarterback guiding their offense. Colin Kaepernick is hoping to become the third player to win a Super Bowl in his second season in the NFL after Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger did so in Super Bowls 36 and 40. Their teams took different approaches in each game and while both resulted in wins, the quarterbacks had very different performances. Roethlisberger’s debut was a rough one as the Steelers were unable to get him in a rhythm early due to penalties and ineffective run plays which lead to a rough game while Brady was allowed to spread the field and gain some early confidence which lead to an MVP performance in spite of some pedestrian numbers.
In the playoffs so far Kaepernick has shown some impressive poise, most notably bouncing back from an early pick-six against Green Bay. If he is going to help the 49ers win then the coaching staff will need to get him some early completions on some easy throws. He has plenty of targets to choose from so look for Crabtree and Vernon Davis to see some early attempts in their direction. A settled quarterback will go a long way to getting the 49ers on track offensively. While Kaepernick presents a unique threat on the ground San Francisco will need to make sure that they do not become one dimensional and totally reliant on the run despite the fact that is their strength.
Frank Gore looms as the true game-breaker for the 49ers with his powerful, uncompromising running style. With the pistol formation and read option plays on the table due to the multiple threats in the backfield, Gore can find his holes in the line and burst through to the second level where he can really do some damage against smaller defenders. The way the 49ers use the pistol formation is essentially a deeper set strong or weak I formation with a fullback next to the quarterback. On Gore’s game-winning touchdown against Atlanta, Delainie Walker shifted to the weak side next to Kaepernick with two receivers wide on the weak (left) side while Vernon Davis was on the line on the right. This motion led to the 49ers having an extra man on the right which they used to great advantage.
With Walker acting as a lead blocker, Gore was able to go off tackle on the strong side and into the end zone untouched. Loading up the weak side caused the defense to shift that way and the threat of Kaepernick on the ground took John Abraham out of the action due to his containment responsibilities highlighted in green. With the safety following Vernon Davis out to the sideline the line was left with simple one on one responsibilities and Gore found the hole to go straight in for the lead that his team would not relinquish. If San Francisco is able to confuse Baltimore with their formations and create overlaps on one side of the line then they will be in for a very successful day running the ball. With the multiple threats in the backfield, Baltimore won’t be able to sell out too far towards one player as they will wind up getting burned another way as the option to run is always present when the ball is in the quarterback’s hands.
Of course this game won’t be able to be won entirely on the ground and the 49ers will need to make plays through the air if they want to score enough points to win. In the 49ers two playoff games we have seen two different sides of Colin Kaepernick, against Green Bay the running threat on the ground came out while against Atlanta he was a passer first and foremost, only running twice. It’s all well and good to say that Kaepernick needs to start fast but the big question is how can he do that against the Ravens. The best way is to attack the Ravens with short crossing routes early on, preferably with their tight ends who will likely be covered by slower linebackers causing their safeties to come up closer to the line. After the run game is established then they will have the freedom to take some deep shots to guys like Randy Moss who could be an under the radar MVP if he can catch a couple of long bombs in the end zone. Kaepernick’s legs will play a big role in the passing game but he will be needing to run to give himself some time in the pocket as opposed to looking to break big yardage off a scramble. Baltimore will try and disguise their coverage and confuse the sophomore player but they can’t overcomplicate things as the 49ers have an athletic advantage over them and could break free if an assignment is blown.
Overall it comes down to balance for the 49ers offense, if they can avoid digging themselves into a hole needing to go pass happy to come back from a deficit. If the 49ers can keep their ground game as a legitimate threat then the Ravens won’t be able to sell out and pressure Colin Kaepernick.