Yesterday, I took a look at the 49ers' weaknesses to keep an eye on during Super Bowl XLVII. Having won the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the 49ers obviously have more strengths than weaknesses. Let's take a look at a few of those strengths that fans should keep an eye on during the big game. Hopefully, they will help lead this team to its sixth championship.
Jim Harbaugh has to already be considered one of the elite head coaches in the league. If you add his coordinators into the equation, you can see why the 49ers have a winning formula more often than not. This coaching staff has won 27 games over the past two seasons. Their ability to prepare the players for each opponent is remarkable. They have an uncanny ability to break down an opposing team and expose their weaknesses.
The 49ers have also come up big when the game itself gets bigger. They opened the season with a big road win in Green Bay. The Chicago Bears were 7-2 before losing 32-7 in San Francisco. The Saints had won five of their last six before losing 31-21 to the 49ers in New Orleans. The New England Patriots were considered by many to be the best team in the AFC, maybe even the NFL, before falling 41-34 to the 49ers at home. Once the playoffs started, the 49ers steamrolled past the Packers and then came back from 17 down against the Falcons in the NFC Championship.
This coaching staff has always worked with the strengths of the players that they had. For example, the introduction of the pistol formation and the read-option offense that accompanies it. It takes advantage of Colin Kaepernick's strengths. The pistol is a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and the single back formations. Instead of standing seven yards back like he normally would in the shotgun, the quarterback will stand four yards back. The running back, who would normally be to the left or right of the quarterback in the shotgun, will move in and stand right behind the quarterback, concealing him from the defense. The read-option will then leave one of the defenders unblocked and give the quarterback the option to hand the ball off to the running back based off of what that unblocked defender does. Former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault's offensive system is being executed perfectly by the 49ers, even though it was only installed during the offseason and was unveiled earlier this season. Kaepernick's ability to beat you in multiple ways makes him even more deadly in the pistol and read-option. The offense didn't miss a beat during the transition. In fact, it improved.
The 49ers may have the best offensive line in football. If this game comes down to the battle in the trenches, it would be tough to bet against the 49ers. It is a very well coached unit. Jonathan Goodwin has really improved at center. Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are strengths on the left side, where they will face Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata, while Alex Boone and Anthony Davis are strengths on the right side. This line is playing some nasty football right now and won't have to face a completely heathy linebacking core with neither Ray Lewis nor Terrell Suggs at 100%.
The 49ers offensive line is protecting Kaepernick as well. Although, some of this may be due to his mobility. Kaepernick has only been sacked twice in 52 pass attempts during the postseason and each of the five lineman have started every game this season. "The way they have all stayed healthy and played well together, it's really been a strength and a center for our football team," said Harbaugh.
Much of the media is focusing on the Ravens winning for linebacker Ray Lewis, who will retire after the Super Bowl. The 49ers have their own fan favorite to play for. Running back Frank Gore is the heart of the 49ers offense and one of the most liked players on the team. Gore, who was drafted by the 49ers in 2005, is finishing up his eighth season. That's a very long time for an NFL running back.
One of the Raven's biggest weaknesses this season has been their rushing defense. They ranked 20th in the league against the run, allowing 123 yards-per-game during the regular season. That number went up to over 128 yards-per-game during the postseason.
The 49ers on the other hand, ranked 4th in the league in rushing during the regular season. They averaged 156 yards-per-game. During the postseason, that number went up to 236 yards-per-game. If your throw out Colin Kaepernick's 202 rushing yards, that is still 135 yards-per-game.
Gore averaged 4.7 yards-per-attempt during the regular season and 4.8 yards-per-attempt during the postseason. Backup running back LaMichael James, a rookie, is averaging 6.9 yards-per-attempt in the postseason.
The Ravens have allowed 6.2 yards-per-attempt on the ground while facing the pistol offense according to ESPN. The Washington Redskins ran it during a regular season matchup.
All these things bode well for the 49ers and not so much for the Ravens.
Other offensive playmakers
Since Colin Kaepernick has taken over at quarterback, wide receiver Michael Crabtree has emerged as a dangerous weapon. With Alex Smith as the starter, Crabtree had one 100+ yard game this season and averaged about 57 yards-per-game. With Kaepernick, he has had four 100+ yard games and averaged about 86 yards-per-game.
Vernon Davis' production dropped when Kaepernick took over. However, against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game, he exploded with 106 receiving yards on 5 catches and got into the endzone for the first time since November 19th.
While wide receiver Randy Moss may feel that his role has been limited, having only 33 receptions for 505 yards and 3 touchdowns (including playoffs), he has been a very important part of the offense. He understands his role as a quiet leader, a blocker, and often, a decoy that helps other offensive weapons get open. "If that's going to win me a ring, yeah, I accept that," said Moss while discussing his role with the team. However, you can't dismiss him as a possible weapon for the 49ers because he has shown that he can still get it done when called upon.
One of the major advantages of quarterback Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith is his ability to make the 49ers offense more dynamic. Not only can he get the ball downfield with his big arm and get it there accurately, but he can also add to the read-option and pistol run game by becoming a running threat himself. The more things that a defense has to worry about, the easier it becomes to exploit that defense. You may not know if the ball if going to be run by Gore, Kaepernick, or be thrown downfield until it is too late.
The 49ers have the best linebacking core in the NFL. Linebacker Patrick Willis is the 49ers' version of Ray Lewis, only younger and with less crying. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his six seasons in the league. Next to him is third year player NaVorro Bowman, who was elected to his first Pro Bowl this season. On the outside, they have second year player Aldon Smith and seventh year veteran Ahmad Brooks. Smith was elected to the Pro Bowl this year after a 14 sack rookie season and a 19.5 sack 2012 campaign. Brooks may be the defense's most underrated player and showed why during the NFC Championship Game when, at the end of the game, he got great pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan on one play and then deflected a pass on 3rd and 4 during the following play.