TORREY SMITH v 49ERS DEFENSIVE BACKS
To succeed against a speedy receiver like Smith, San Francisco should embrace the philosophy of the 2001 New England Patriots. For the past week, the Patriots have been mentioned in comparisons of Tom Brady's and Colin Kaepernick's paths to stardom. But that is not as relevant to this game as the defensive philosophy Patriots coach Bill Belichick used against the St Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick had his defensive backs jam receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt at the line before they could do damage downfield. Bruce and Holt, hit repeatedly, appeared to slow as the game progressed. San Francisco's secondary is talented and deep, with six players able to make plays and deliver hits, but the 49ers lack open-field speed. Smith, and to a lesser extent Jacoby Jones, could theoretically outrun the 49ers' coverage, and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has the arm strength to reach them anywhere on the field. In the play-offs, Smith has been especially effective, averaging 22 yards a catch. To prevent the Ravens from turning the game into a day at the races, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown will aim to make it difficult for the receivers to find room to run. If either Smith or Jones gets open for a deep pass, San Francisco's hard-hitting safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, will try to stop him in his tracks. ''That's something we do every day,'' Goldson said. ''It's the kind of players we are. It's nothing we talk about. It's just something that's embedded with us.'' One advantage Flacco has is that the 49ers' defensive backs do not pull down many interceptions (Goldson led the team with three this season) and that will limit the risk in throwing deep.
COLIN KAEPERNICK v TERRELL SUGGS
Pivotal to the game ... Colin Kaepernick. Photo: Reuters
Throughout the season, Kaepernick struggled with the play clock as he made adjustments at the line and often had to use time-outs or take delay-of-game penalties. Even when the ball was snapped in time, he would occasionally have trouble handing off cleanly out of the Pistol formation. If aggressive veterans like Suggs and Ray Lewis can put regular pressure on Kaepernick, perhaps knocking the ball away on an awkward hand-off or two, they might be able to rattle him. That could be a tall order. Since arriving in New Orleans, Kaepernick, who has started only nine NFL games, has acted as if all the attention paid to him as a Super Bowl quarterback is normal. People can speculate about the ways pressure might affect him, but his demeanour has not changed. ''I don't know that there really is pressure,'' Kaepernick said. ''Like I've said, pressure comes from a lack of preparation.''
RAY RICE v FRANK GORE
These star running backs will not be going head-to-head, but their performances will be crucial for their teams. As good as Rice is, Baltimore cannot compete with San Francisco's running machine. Gore alone is a remarkable talent; with LaMichael James and Gore running behind left guard Mike Iupati, the 49ers are difficult for any team to stop. This season the Ravens ranked 20th in the NFL in run defence. Factor in the mobility of Kaepernick, and the 49ers might have no need to pass in this game. Baltimore were counted out all season yet continued to win. But the Ravens' magic runs out Sunday.