Super Bowl 2013: 49ers Pass Rush Is X-Factor

Stephen FenechCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2013

Aldon Smith has a lot of pressure on him with Super Bowl XLVII on the horizon.
Aldon Smith has a lot of pressure on him with Super Bowl XLVII on the horizon.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the matchup for Super Bowl XLVII set, the pass rush the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers are able to generate will dictate which side triumphs.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers surrendered 24 first half points largely due to their lack of a consistent pass rush, which produced zero sacks in the first 30 minutes. In the second half, the pass rush improved, even if Matt Ryan was only sacked once. 

The improved pass rush led to better results, seeing as the 49ers held the Falcons scoreless in the second half and pulled off the road victory. 

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had an excellent postseason, throwing eight touchdowns to no interceptions. Also, Flacco has led the Ravens on one of the most impressive playoff runs in recent history, with road victories over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

In the Ravens three playoff wins, Flacco has displayed a beautiful long ball, which has been his calling card since entering the league in 2008.  

While the 49ers have solid secondary players such as Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, their performance will be dependent upon the pass rush created by the front-seven. 

If given time in the pocket, Flacco will connect on at least a few big plays down the field to a variety of targets. 

Wideout Torrey Smith has emerged as one of the league's premier deep threats during the postseason, as evidenced by his domination of Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey in the divisional round. 

Jacoby Jones will always be remembered for being on the receiving end on one of the most shocking passes in NFL history and is capable of being a game-changer if left open. 

In Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin, Flacco has a couple of reliable intermediate targets. 

We have no reason to deduce that all of a sudden Flacco's confidence will be shaken. The 49ers best chance to rattle Flacco will be to apply consistent pressure, which is an area in which San Francisco has not been elite this season. 

In fact, the 49ers finished the regular season tied for 11th in the league in terms of sacks with 38. The pass rush hasn't improved much in the postseason, as the Niners have only compiled two sacks. 

Outside of Aldon Smith who amassed 19.5 sacks by his lonesome, the 49ers lack another consistent pass rusher, which has led to their average pass rush. 

Justin Smith is productive when healthy, but he has been playing with a partially torn triceps that has compromised his strength at the point of attack. 

Without Justin Smith at full strength, opposing offensive lines can focus on Aldon Smith. In turn, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been forced to find other ways to generate pressure, most of which weaken the pass defense.  

One way the 49ers have looked to generate pressure is to blitz Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman through the A-Gap. The tactic was effective against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round at times, although it left the middle of the field vulnerable. 

While Flacco is more dangerous throwing the ball down the field, he will be more than happy to settle for easy completions when available. Thus, it's crucial for the 49ers to get to Flacco when they dial up blitzes, which is something they will have to do frequently. 

The Ravens offensive line surrendered 38 sacks in the regular season, which suggests that the unit was below the league average. However, Baltimore's current offensive line configuration is above the league average. 

After struggling at the beginning of the season, the Ravens coaching staff inserted Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher to right tackle and shifted rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard.

Since making the change, Baltimore's offensive line has been much better in pass protection, as evidenced by Flacco's strong postseason. 

Predicting whether or not the 49ers pass rush will be effective is a crapshoot, but it's importance cannot be questioned.