Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Angles on Niners - Ravens

Would be nice to have Ray Lewis back.

I think the Niners might be the most physical, bullying team in the league. I think Jim Harbagh knew exactly what he wanted to emphasize. The Steelers or Ravens are usually "that guy", but I think this year it is San Francisco. The Niners are playing better than Pittsburgh or Baltimore is, certainly better than Baltimore. Weighted DVOA says so, and so do your eyes. I'm sure the Niners are younger at some key positions – Patrick Willis has been faster than Ray Lewis for some years now – and Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks & Justin Smith can really rush the passer. Whereas, in addition to Ray-ray's toe issue, Haloti Ngata has been wrestling with a thigh injury for a couple weeks now.

Also, the Ravens kick coverage units have been terrible this season. They have given up big play after big play. Ted Ginn is super dangerous.

So, you know, I'm worried about this game. The Ravens have been unraveling a bit on defense over the last couplefew weeks, and it's a powerful team coming in. Plus I looked at the Steelers remaining schedule, and I think they go 5-1 the rest of the way, the loss coming in San Francisco. That means the Ravens will have to win 5 more games to win the division, and they still travel to San Diego and to Cincinnati this season. They need to win this game.

A few points that might benefit the Ravens:

• They are at home. The Ravens have been very difficult to beat at home over the last dozen years – I think they have one of the league's 3 best records over that span. They have thumped good opponents this season in Baltimore (Pittsburgh, NYJ, Houston). What are the Niners impressive road wins? @ Cincinnati week 3, @ Philadelphia week 4, @ Detroit week 6. (The win over the Giants was in San Francisco.) Those are good teams, but Cincy & Philly were still working out some kinks early in the season.

• No matter how well he's managing the games for them right now, the Niners QB is still Alex Smith. I have a hard time believing he will beat the Ravens defense. Frank Gore is a beast, but one-dimensional teams do not typically do well against the Ravens.

• The Ravens are used to playing in "that game". I'm assuming a certain style of hard-hitting slugfest. Have these Niners ever played in "that game"? The Ravens play it twice a year vs the Steelers, often three times a year. Plus their games against Cincy often go that route as well. Whatever quality of nerve and poise it takes to shake off a bad sack or a bad turnover, and stay in "that game" all the way until the final minute, the Ravens have demonstrated they have it. Flacco might be a lock to commit 1.5 dumb turnovers per game, but he has come right back with solid performances in the remainders of those tight games, and given the Ravens chances to win.

• As wildly inconsistent as it has been, the Ravens offense still has more weapons with Flacco, Ray Rice, Boldin & Torrey Smith & Lee Evans, Dickson & Pitta, than the Niners offense has. The Niners have dangerous offensive players in Gore, Crabtree and Vernon Davis, esp Davis, but the Ravens have more.

So, I dunno. I feel that there's a risk of the Niners defense and spec teams overwhelming the Ravens, scoring points off turnovers and returns. Big number for the Niners, in that case. If that doesn't happen, and the game settles in to a knock-down drag-out battle, then I see the Ravens offense eking out a TD here and a few FGs there. I don't see the Niners offense getting much of anything. Ravens 16-6, in that case.

I think some in the Baltimore media will see this game as a referendum on how much the Ravens want to sacrifice for John Harbaugh. By "some in the media" I mean Preston. He has consistently written that Harbaugh does not connect well with the team, they find him corny etc etc. I have usually found Preston unconvincing on this issue. Not "wrong" necessarily. There are 50+ guys on a football team – the number is probably well over 60 when you factor in the practice squad and guys who are out with injury but still around the facility rehabbing and participating in meetings. Sixty guys do not agree on anything. Probably any head coach "connects well" with some of the guys, is ignored by others, etc. The Ravens as an organization pay more attention to issues of personality than most teams do (they go out of their way to assess how coachable a player is, draft team captains, etc), but there is zero chance that no one on the roster rolls his eyes when he hears about "Mighty Men" etc. So, I think on any squad it would be pretty easy to find ~5 guys who are sarcastic about the head coach and his motivational tactics. Even starters. So I don't think Preston is necessarily wrong, but that he is misinterpreting or blowing out of proportion.

But that's easy for me to say. He's actually met the players and been in the locker room. What if he's right? In that light it will be interesting to see how hard the Ravens play, what kind of determination they show late in the game, and how they celebrate with Harbaugh toward the end if they win. Suggs has already said that he can't wait for the post-game handshake between the coaches. I'd be really touched if a lot of guys are hugging Harbaugh and dunking him with Gatorade etc.

Does Jim Harbaugh remind you at all of Cowher?


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