NEW ORLEANS – The Baltimore Ravens’ defense ranked outside the top 10 in the NFL in yards allowed this year for the first time in a decade.
With seven games to go in the season, the Ravens were sixth worst in the league in yards allowed. They rallied to finish 17th.
The Ravens insist cracks in their defensive armor are overrated entering Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.
“Our guys have done a great job of not worrying about stats,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. “The bottom line is you’ve gotta be good in the red zone and you gotta not give up points.”
Indeed, the Ravens ranked fifth in the league in points allowed and were second in preventing touchdowns once the opposition reached the red zone.
Nevertheless, the San Francisco offense poses a big challenge to the Ravens’ run defense. The 49ers have one of the most physical and talented offensive lines in the NFL. San Francisco ranked fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 156 yards a game.
“It’s going to be a real physical game,” said Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata. “They pride themselves and their offense prides themselves in being physical and trying to run the ball. They have a physical running back. We want to be physical all the time. I expect it to be a real physical game.”
Baltimore was 20th against the run, yielding 123 a game. The Ravens were terrible against two of the better rushing offenses they faced. They gave up 43 points in a loss to Houston early in the season. They allowed 31 points and 172 rushing yards in a late-season win over Washington. Both Washington and San Francisco boast a dual-threat quarterback who excels both running and passing.
Ravens safety Ed Reed said the Niners’ scheme is hard to defend.
“You have so much that can come off it,” said Reed. “You got the pass off it, you got the option off it, you got the dive off it, you got the quarterback off it. They might deliver a pizza or two off it, you just don’t know what they’re gonna come with.”
San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick has averaged 7.6 yards a carry and scored seven rushing touchdowns this year. His read-option running plays, in which he either hands off to a running back up the middle or runs off tackle, have increased. The Niners ran the read option 3.7 times a game in the regular season but have used it 14.5 times a game in the playoffs, according to ESPN.
In the divisional round, Green Bay overplayed Niners back Frank Gore between the tackles and Kaepernick gashed them outside for 181 rushing yards. Last week Atlanta did a great job on Kaepernick, but Gore got 90 yards and two touchdowns.
“The option pistol stuff that they’re running, I know Washington runs it some, but it’s a little different,” Pees said, referring to the Pistol formation, in which the back lines up directly behind the QB. “Everyone talks about No. 7 [Kaepernick], but 21 [Gore] can beat you just as easy as 7.”
“He’s still, to me, the main focus,” Pees said of Gore.
“A lot of people who played against them just never communicated at all,” said Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. “I believe that’s one of the advantages of what we have as a defense.
“A lot of people against the read-option just played as individuals. It’s really hard to play that type of package as individuals. You have to play it as a group.”
The Ravens’ pass rush has been a concern, too. Baltimore ranked 17th in sacks. The Ravens’ long-time sackmaster, Terrell Suggs, missed the first six games because he was coming off Achilles tendon surgery. He had just two sacks this year, but has added two in the playoffs. The Ravens’ top rusher is Paul Kruger, who had nine sacks in the regular season and has 2.5 in the playoffs.