Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. 49ers ILBs
Joe Flacco has earned the respect from the 49ers' defense, and they will spend time making sure he doesn't beat them deep. As good as Flacco has been, though, RB Ray Rice may still be the Ravens' best offensive threat.
Rice has 247 rushing yards this postseason, including a 30-131-1 game against a Broncos defense that finished ranked third overall defending the run during the regular season. Rice is a three-down back with the strength to go between the tackles and the quickness to bounce outside. He is also one of the league's best receiving backs, finishing with 61 catches this season.
The 49ers certainly are not easy to run against - they were fourth in the league in rushing defense and third in yards allowed per carry. In the regular season, the 49ers gave up 100 yards rushing five times - they were 1-3-1 in those games. Those opposing backs - Marshawn Lynch, Ahmad Bradshaw, Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson - are not known for their pass-catching abilities like Rice, which is where the 49ers' linebacking corps comes into play.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are far and away the league's best inside-linebacker duo. They are physical, sure tacklers with the sideline-to-sideline range to keep ballcarriers from getting to the secondary.
Only four running backs had more than three catches in a game against the 49ers. Darren Sproles' 7-65 receiving game was the best any running back had against San Francisco. Teams struggle to get their backs into the open field. Rice only has four catches this postseason, but had more than three catches in a game eight times during the regular season. His 29-yard catch-and-run on 4th-and-28 against the Chargers was one of the top plays of the season.
The Ravens will want to use the intermediate passing game, especially if the 49ers take away the deep ball, and that's where Rice is key - as Flacco's safety valve and a playmaker. Any advantage the Ravens can find against the Niners' defense will need to be exploited, and getting Rice to the edge away from the Willis-Bowman combo would be beneficial.
Ravens TE Dennis Pitta will be another pass-catching threat for Willis and Bowman to be aware of, and that could help open things up for Rice.
Running the football, the Ravens found the most success off the left side of their line or up the middle. Going right up the gut against the Niners will be tough with Bowman and Willis in the middle. But the Ravens' running tendencies work out favorably - they have struggled running right, where the 49ers rank first in the league in yards allowed per carry. The biggest holes in San Francisco's defense have come when teams run off the left side, going against pass rusher Aldon Smith, who is not known for his run defense.
Willis generally lines up on Smith's side and will need to help fill the gaps if the Ravens attack that direction, using Rice as a runner or receiver.
It has been over a month since Rice took over a game, but he is more than capable. Rice went 24-107 rushing and 6-51-1 receiving in a big win over the Giants in Week 16. If the 49ers worry too much about covering Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin deep, the Ravens will attack with Rice. But if Bowman and Willis shut down Rice and the Ravens' run game, other Baltimore playmakers will need to step up, putting more pressure on Flacco.
Rice has been the forgotten man during the Ravens' run, but he has the skills to be a big factor in Super Bowl XLVII.
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