In the 49ers' meeting with the Ravens last season, Baltimore sacked QB Alex Smith nine times. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
In the only game the 49ers and Ravens have met since Jim Harbaugh became San Francisco’s head coach, his team was devoured by the Baltimore defense.
It was a feeding frenzy.
The Ravens had a team-record nine sacks in a 16-6 Thanksgiving night victory in Baltimore last season, and the Niners had to make a cross-country flight back to the Bay Area physically beaten and emotionally whipped.
The Niners team that will face the Ravens in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 in New Orleans, however, will feature a much different offense in a far different situation.
The prospect for a second feeding frenzy seems remote.
Oddsmakers, in fact, have made the 49ers an early 4½-point favorite for the game, in which San Francisco will try to make it a perfect 6-for-6 in Super Bowls.
In that first meeting between Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers and John Harbaugh’s Ravens, Alex Smith was the San Francisco quarterback. As one game report described it, “He was pressured, hit, sacked, knocked down and chased around the entire game.”
Now, the much more mobile Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers QB, and he has been far tougher for opposing defenses to get their hands on. In Smith’s most recent 28 starts, he was sacked 75 times, according to ESPN. In Kaepernick’s five most recent starts, he’s been taken down five times.
In addition, in their first meeting, the 49ers had to fly cross-country on a very short week after a Sunday game on a hostile field. This time, both teams will be well rested and meeting at a neutral site.
Also, the Niners’ have a much stronger offensive line this season with the addition of Alex Boone at right guard, and the team’s Pistol formations and read-option can keep defenses from teeing off. Baltimore can’t just swarm after Kaepernick the way it went after Smith in 2011.
“Guys were just feeling the energy, looking at the pass game and getting around the edge,” said Ravens defensive end Cory Redding after that nine-sack game.
After the Ravens stopped the 49ers running game early, they knew Smith would have no option but to stand in the pocket and try to make big plays.
“That’s the beauty of stopping the run,” Redding said then. “When you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer.”
The Ravens will have to be wary of the read-option and Kaepernick’s running ability, because they had trouble with the Redskins’ similar offense in a Week 14 meeting this season. Washington and Robert Griffin III had 15 option rushes for 93 yards in that game, according to ESPN.
This Ravens defense, too, isn’t what it once was. It’s older, missing some key players from past seasons (including injured star safety Ed Reed) and ranked 17th in the NFL in total defense this season, giving up 21.5 points and 350.9 yards per game.
So, does all this mean the Niners have an easy road in this Harbaugh Brothers Rematch?
Not at all. Baltimore’s offense, with quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice, is much more dangerous than in past seasons, and Baltimore still is a physical, well-coached group. Linebacker Ray Lewis will be playing the final game of his career, and his late-season return has seemed to give the Ravens a boost.
Plus, any team that can knock off both Denver and New England, in back-to-back weeks, may indeed be a team of destiny – a label that’s been applied to the Ravens this postseason.
It’s just unlikely that this rematch will reprise the feeding frenzy of last Thanksgiving, when Smith played the role of wishbone for the Ravens’ ravenous pass rushers.