Super Bowl 2013: Grading Position-by-Position Matchups for 49ers vs. Ravens

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Colin Kaepernick #7 and Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers answer questions in the post game news conference after the 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome on January 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The brotherly chess match between Jim and John Harbaugh is both amusing to talk about, and genuinely one of the most important factors in next Sunday's Super Bowl.

But as Cousin Sal would sardonically contend, football isn't all about the X's and O's—it's about the Jim's and Joe's.

Stated with less sarcasm: We'd be remiss to let Sunday's on-field matchups get lost amid the winsome discussion of sibling rivalry.

Let's take a position-by-position look at who's got the Jim-and-Joe advantage (as opposed to the Jim-and-John advantage) in Super Bowl XLVII.




Both Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick have excelled this postseason, so its hard to pick against either one. But the same can be said about almost any Super Bowl matchup (it's pretty tough to get this far without strong QB play), and year after year, we usually see one guy outplay his opponent.

It's hard to evaluate numbers since Flacco's sample size is so much bigger than Kaepernick's. Even so, the young Niners quarterback has played enough to qualify statistically, so it's worth at least gandering at how they compare (h/t Football Outsiders):

Name Yards Effective Yards QBR (Rk) DVOA (Rk)
Colin Kaepernick (SF) 1,687 1,955 76.8 (3) 25.7% (3)
Joe Flacco (BAL) 3,589 3,414 46.8 (25) -1.4% (17)

Worth noting: The relationship between "Yards" and "Effective Yards" is relative. That is, the total doesn't matter as much as the comparison between the two. In general, a player whose Effective Yards exceed their actual yards (like Kaepernick) played better than traditional stats would indicate. Likewise, a player whose yards exceed their Effective Yards (like Flacco) played worse than traditional stats would indicate.

Flacco has improved drastically in the playoffs, but his season—along with his career—has been marred by too much inconsistency to trust. I'll ride with the slightly hotter hand (and legs).

Advantage: San Francisco


Running Back

Heading into the season, this would have been an absolute no-brainer. Grantland's Bill Barnwell made an excellent, stat-driven case for Rice as the league's top back this offseason—a conversation that Frank Gore didn't even figure into.

Upon further review of their present campaigns, however, things get pretty interesting (h/t Football Outsiders):

Name Yards Effective Yards YPC DYAR (Rk) DVOA (Rk)
Frank Gore (SF) 1,213 1,323 4.70 268 (4) 17.4% (4)
Ray Rice (BAL) 1,143 1,211 4.45 205 (7) 11.5% (7)


According to both of Football Outsiders' signature (and strongest) metrics, Gore was the fourth-best running back in the league this year, while Rice placed a not-so-distant seventh. It isn't much to go on—and really, you can't go wrong either way—but that's enough for me.

Advantage: San Francisco


Wide Receiver

In almost every conceivable way—talent, hot streak, rapport with current QB, etc.—Michael Crabtree will be the best receiver on the field next Sunday. But where do the Niners look after that?

The loss of Mario Manningham, who tore his ACL against Seattle in Week 16, hasn't slowed San Francisco down yet, but it could come into play against Baltimore. Aside from being a proficient threat from the slot, the former Giant is just one year removed from a Super Bowl appearance—and a successful one at that.

Behind Crabtree lies a rejuvenated Randy Moss—who could be asked to factor prominently—and a host of middling talents. That's hardly enough to inspire confidence.

On the other side of the ball, Baltimore's wideouts are peaking at just the right time. Anquan Boldin has looked like the Anquan Boldin of old (Anquan Oldin?), and Torrey Smith continues to stretch the field better than anyone in this year's postseason.

Baltimore, too, has a cadre of underwhelming alternatives past its leading duo, but assuming you call Crabtree-Boldin an essential wash (which I do), I'll take the burgeoning speed of Smith over the declining speed of Moss any day.

Advantage: Baltimore


Tight End

If you look at the larger sample size since Colin Kaepernick took over under center, Dennis Pitta would probably be the choice over Vernon Davis. His body of work over the season's second half was drastically better.

But who are we kidding here? Vernon Davis re-proved his worth against Atlanta on Sunday. At his best, he's one of the five best tight ends in football. At Pitta's best, he's in the top half.

The Baltimore Ravens are game-planning a way to slow down Vernon Davis right now. I don't think the same could be said about the Niners and Dennis Pitta. That just about sums it up.

Advantage: San Francisco


Offensive Line

Offensive line is, by many accounts, one of the Niners' biggest advantages over Baltimore. The unit of Staley-Iupati-Goodwin-Boone-and-Davis is widely lauded as the best in football. But further review shows a surprising lack of balance (h/t Football Outsiders):

Team Adj. Rush Yards NFL Rank Adj. Sack Rate NFL Rank
San Francisco 4.49 1 8.5% 29
Baltimore 4.34 6 6.1% 14


The Niners' line has been so good on the ground that many are willing to overlook its struggles in pass protection. It's not inconceivable to think that Baltimore's improved postseason pass rush might be able to exploit that.

But having Colin Kaepernick under center helps alleviate those concerns (at least ever so slightly), and their ground-game aplomb is as good as advertised. I'll still take the Niners over Baltimore, but not by the same margin as most.

Advantage: San Francisco


Defensive Line

So hard to evaluate because so much depends on the health of Justin Smith and Haloti Ngata.

At full strength, Smith and Ngata are among the five best defensive linemen in football—consummate All-Pro selections. But Smith is playing through a partially torn triceps, and risking a full tear with every snap he plays (ask Ray Lewis how that feels). Ngata, meanwhile, has been nursing a bum shoulder all season, his effectiveness varying as a result.

Both behemoths have proved capable against the run this postseason—per Pro Football Focus (member access), they've been the two best 3-4 ends in the playoffs. That being said, neither has been much of a force rushing the passer—per Pro Football Focus (member access), they've been the two worst 3-4 ends in the playoffs.

In the end, I have more faith in Haloti Ngata's shoulder than I do Justin Smith's triceps, and more faith in Pernell McPhee and Ma'ake Kemoeatu than I do in Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga.

You can't go wrong with either unit, but I'll take the Ravens by a small margin.

Advantage: Baltimore



Like its offensive line, San Francisco's linebackers are hailed as the best in the league, and one of the top units in a long, long time. Unlike its offensive line, however, further review doesn't dispute those claims—it actually verifies them.

According to Pro Football Focus, the duo of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks ranked third and fifth (members access) among 34 eligible 3-4 OLBs this season. The inside duo of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman fared even better, ranking first and seventh (members access) among 53 eligible ILBs in 2012.

Baltimore's linebackers have been in and out of the lineup all season, which makes it hard to compare their numbers. At full strength, a deep unit of Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Courtney Upshaw can compete with anyone in football—even the Niners.

But full strength is something they currently are not.

Advantage: San Francisco



Like the rest of Baltimore's defense, the secondary was hampered by injury in 2012. The importance of Lardarius Webb's torn ACL can't be overstated. He was the team's only shutdown corner, and his absence forced porous replacement Cary Williams into frequent duty.

The Ravens have watched Corey Graham emerge as a more-than-serviceable weapon in the slot, but minus Mario Manningham, that might not matter against the Niners. With Colin Kaepernick under center, San Francisco has increasingly looked to the outside. And in present form, Baltimore is not that great on the outside.

The Niners' vaunted secondary looked leaky in the first half last week (we're looking at you, Dashon Goldson), but got its act together in quarters three and four. Unlike New England, Atlanta had all its weapons available last week—San Francisco shut them down by making halftime adjustments, not by simply taking away the deep ball and blitzing.

There's a reason 16.5 percent DVOA separated these two pass defenses in the regular season (h/t Football Outsiders). Some of it can be attributed to the Niners' pass rush, but most of it goes to the secondary.

Advantage: San Francisco