In a rematch of Super Bowl XLVII aka “The Blackout Bowl” aka “The Harbaugh Bowl” in New Orleans, the No. 1 seeds in each conference face off in a Christmas night present that can be a nice capper for whatever movie or marathon that you enjoy throughout the day. Or just to unwind after the NFL’s Xmas tripleheader (sorry, NBA).
In this week’s Overhang, I’ll preview what I’ll be watching for when the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens have the ball. Matchups, tendencies, inklings and glimmers of ideas that we might see unfold Monday night between two of the most complete teams this season. They also might be two of the most complete in recent memory: FTNNetwork’s Aaron Schatz shared recently that among all NFL teams since 1981, the 49ers rank third and the Ravens 11th in DVOA through 14 games of the season:
OK, you got it. The teams are good. But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect and without things to pick at! I will first look at the 49ers’ offense against the Ravens’ defense as the main course, with the other side of the ball being the digestif after I throw some numbers and All-22 clips at you.
So, let’s jump to it!
49ers’ offense vs. Ravens’ defense is matchup of 2 top-tier units
The 49ers’ offense, already performing at a high-octane level, has found a completely different gear following their Week 9 bye week (which also coincided with the return of wide receiver/thing that caused the 1977 New York Blackout, Deebo Samuel).
San Francisco’s offensive success rate of 48.8% currently ranks first in 2023 and is the 13th-highest by an NFL offense through the first 15 weeks since 2000. It is the highest mark an NFL team has hit since the 2018 Saints. The Niners are currently averaging an explosive play on 16.3% of their offensive plays, tied for the third-highest rate since 2000 with the 2001 St. Louis Rams.
The 49ers’ offense is performing like this in one of the toughest defensive climates this millennium (perhaps the toughest). This is the third-lowest leaguewide offensive success rate since 2000. NFL defenses have held offenses to their lowest output in terms of expected points ever, in total and on a per-play basis. It’s not even close, either: Offenses have generated (term used loosely) minus-1098.69 expected points through 15 weeks. The next-lowest year, the 2005 season, isn’t even in the same ballpark with a comparatively high-scoring minus-771.99 expected points.
Brock Purdy is the leader in the clubhouse to win this season’s MVP, operating Kyle Shanahan’s offense to its fullest with the ability to cycle through the 49ers weaponry like he’s repeatedly hitting the Y button (or triangle for the Sony folk). Christian McCaffrey spearheads the attack but is complemented by the explosive Samuel, the drunken boxing route-running style of Brandon Aiyuk, the best two-way tight end in the game George Kittle, and valuable role players in the vowel-hating fullback Kyle Juszczyk and third wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Juszczyk’s versatility also helps unlock the entire offense, as does Jennings’ reliability as a receiver and willingness to scrap in the run game (he is currently on the podium for best blocking wide receiver in the NFL right now):
Kyle Juszczyk’s motion neatly splits his teammates on the other side of the formation. Fun blocking from Juszczyk & Jennings creates a seam for Kittle to split. pic.twitter.com/70LU7cwST0
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 26, 2023
This upper-echelon 49ers offense squares off against a Ravens defense that has flummoxed several top offenses this year and sits second in defensive DVOA and defensive EPA per play. The only reason the Ravens are in second, considering that EPA mark sits 22nd among 766 defenses since 2000, is because of the Cleveland Browns, whose EPA mark sits ninth and are currently sporting the best defensive success rate period since 2000.
The Ravens’ defense under Mike Macdonald sports a kaleidoscopic scheme that runs a little bit of everything. Whether the coverage is man or zone, or whether it’s a blitz or a simulated pressure (aka when a defense blitzes a traditional off-ball defender but still rushes only four), their players mix up their looks as well as anyone. They try to bait quarterbacks into targeting arm-filled areas or holding onto the ball for that extra half-second so the pass rush can get home.
Linebacker Roquan Smith and safety/Swiss Army Knife Kyle Hamilton are the keystone players of this defense, holding pre-snap looks until the very last possible second, before revealing themselves and swallowing up passing games like Jean Jacket from “Nope.”
So how might 49ers attack Ravens’ defense?
To start, San Francisco’s offense gets into 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers) on 43.3% of their early down plays (second-highest in the NFL) and using the do-it-allness of its personnel to create numbers and matchup advantages galore.
The 49ers will align McCaffrey and Juszczyk out wide and Samuel in the backfield, giving easy indicators for Purdy to determine whether a defense is in man or zone coverage (or revealing a potential blitz). This helps the 49ers not only get into a preferred play, but a perfect play at times. Shanahan likes to package two (or more) plays together in the initial play-call, with the final play being determined by things like box count, number of deep safeties, front, coverage or even where a particular player is aligned. Sometimes Purdy gets out of a bad play, and other times he changes the play into a particularly advantageous one that the coaching staff had planned all week for.
While it is impossible to know exactly what plays are packaged together and without being in the meeting rooms, there is an interesting tendency revealed after sifting through data for this matchup. The 49ers love, love, love to throw the ball when they get man coverage. They are simply addicted to it. And those pre-snap gyrations help undress their ability to diagnose and dissect it when the opportunity arises.
The 49ers have faced just 85 snaps of Cover 1 on early downs this year, fifth-fewest in the NFL. But when they are facing Cover 1, the 49ers drop back to pass on 67.1% of those snaps, easily the highest rate in the NFL and significantly higher than the league-average rate of 53.2%. When they get man coverage against their trusty 21 personnel? That rate bumps up to a tidy 75%. The 49ers’ offense simply cannot wait to snap the ball when they know they are getting man coverage.
Why so few total snaps? And why do the 49ers throw so much against it?
It’s because they shred man coverage. Samuel, Kittle, McCaffrey and Aiyuk provide matchup advantages every single week. The 49ers’ dropback success rate of 57.9% against man coverage ranks first, and isn’t even in the same league, much less in the same ballpark, of the NFL average success rate of 41.6% against man.
What makes this more interesting is that when the 49ers face zone coverage, their dropback rate drops all the way down to 46.4% on early downs, 32nd in the NFL and the only team that sits below 50%. When the 49ers know what they’re getting, which is more often than not, they are going to get to that pristine play, which is typically a pass against man coverage (matchup advantages galore!) or a mix of runs and particular-designed concepts against the zone (numbers advantage extravaganza!).
No matter what they get to, it’s been efficient and explosive. What’s so interesting is how they know what they can get to.
Here is an example of the 49ers using pre-snap movement and alignment to get McCaffrey isolated on a linebacker in the red zone, creating a wide-open touchdown:
Here are four plays from the 49ers’ offense that features pre-snap movement on an early down. The first two plays, the Cardinals sit in zone coverage (can you name a Cardinals defensive back outside of Budda Baker?), and the 49ers proceeded to pound the rock with a duo run concept.
On the pair of plays against the Cincinnati Bengals defense, another variety pack type of unit under coordinator Lou Anarumo, the Bengals play man coverage, and the 49ers run two concepts with man coverage answers. The second play features a pre-snap double shift to clear space for a McCaffrey choice route isolated on a Bengals linebacker:
The first play of the embedded tweet, the 49ers align Juszczyk outside (marked yellow) and Samuel in the slot, and when a Cardinals cornerback stays outside and linebacker Dennis Gardeck splits out over Samuel, the alignments give Purdy very solid zone indicators. (It’s unlikely a team would, in its right mind, have a linebacker on wide receiver and a cornerback on a fullback in man coverage.)
When the Cardinals stay in their Cover 4 shell, the 49ers shift Juszczyk back into an in-line position and run the ball for a nice gain.
On the following play, Kittle is aligned on the outside of the 49ers’ bunch formation. When it’s a cornerback aligned on the outside (and not a safety that follows), the 49ers proceed to not only shift Kittle’s side, but also put Juszczyk on a speed motion that completely flips the initial alignment for the 49ers from three players to the offense’s right to three to the left, all at the snap of the ball.
Going from this:
Which ends up contorting the defense into popping open rushing lanes for McCaffrey to enjoy.
What can the Ravens’ defense do about it?
Finding an answer or two against 49ers’ 21 personnel will be the priority. The Ravens mix their coverages and their personnel between trotting out four defensive backs (base) or five defensive backs (nickel, sometimes with three safeties) when teams use 21 or 12 personnel (i.e. only two wide receivers on the field).
The Ravens’ defense is more than capable of handling the run out of base personnel, holding run games to a sub-30% success rate. But against the pass? Eesh. The Ravens rank in the bottom 10, advanced metrics-wise, defending the pass when they use that base personnel, which is dicey going against this particular 49ers unit!
On the other hand, when the Ravens defend with five or more defensive backs, and especially against the same two wide receiver looks? One of the best defenses in football. And the best, in terms of success rate, defending the pass (although on a small sample size).
What mix of personnel and coverages the Ravens decide to use will be the crux of this side of the ball because it will determine how the 49ers go about their attack. So, keep an eye out for Ravens defenders moving with the 49ers as it can be an indicator of what’s to come.
So what is to come? I think it’s going to be a big McCaffrey night. The Ravens prefer to play two-high coverages on first and second down, which typically leads to more running the ball and simply more McCaffrey — his combined targets plus designed rushes per snap rate is 47.9% against zone, but drops to 36.5% against man coverage. And the Ravens’ run defense can be susceptible to chunks on the ground, especially against a Shanahan run game that can use the Ravens’ recent matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, where running back Kyren Williams ran for 114 yards under Sean McVay’s game planning, as a part of the blueprint.
Man coverage typically leads to Purdy spreading the ball around, but also with a healthy heaping of Aiyuk targets (his target share jumps up to 32.5% against Cover 1, highest on the team). McCaffrey and Kittle both hover just over 20%. Samuel sits at 13.3%. Against zone? Aiyuk, Samuel and Kittle’s respective target shares all hover in the low 20% range.
Do the Ravens lean into man coverage and get the game into a pass-heavier script, perhaps stealing a turnover rather than dying a slow death of runs and airborne gashes? The Ravens’ defense can get to any coverage it wants to. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens combine pre-snap disguises against the 49ers’ constant movement, and if they can fool Purdy into a lesser play or decision. What particular coverage do they think is best to throw at this offense? Or will they deploy the broad spectrum of everything under the sun?
Things will also get interesting if the Ravens’ front can win a couple of times. Can Justin Madubuike create some chaos in the pocket and force Purdy into something off-structure? Can Odafe Oweh or Jadeveon Clowney take advantage of their matchup on right tackle Colton McKivitz, a sore spot on this 49ers unit? Or on the back end, can Marlon Humphrey shine when in coverage against one of the 49ers’ fantastic wide receivers?
WIth so much movement on both sides, there is bound to be a giant play or two to be had on both sides of the ball. Both units’ communication will be strained, who blinks first might lead to the whole game breaking open.
What to expect when the Ravens have the ball
I do not want to bury the other exciting matchup in this game, featuring another quarterback on the MVP shortlist and his upper-echelon offense going against a strong defense in and of itself, one that likes to suffocate offenses like Xenia Onatopp from “GoldenEye.”
The 49ers prefer to play in zone coverages that weaponize the spine of their defense, with linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw roaming the middle and Warner seemingly running routes for offensive players, taking away throwing lanes before they even come open.
The 49ers’ cornerback play is also strong with Charvarius Ward, who should be an All-Pro lock following the season, and the high-level two-way game from Deommodore Lenoir, who has taken another leap after getting moved back into the slot following the bye week. And they have a plethora of pass rushers that overwhelm the backfield. This defense makes for some really bad times for offenses.
But the Ravens have the ultimate bad times eraser and good times provider in Lamar Jackson, who is playing some of the best ball of his career, like some ultimate combination of Archie Manning and Matthew Stafford
Whether it’s operating from the pocket or creating, Jackson is excelling. This Ravens offense can switch to its run or pass game on any play, with Jackson dropping in his moments of sheer brilliance to spice things up.
The pass game under offensive coordinator Todd Monken has been updated from Greg Roman’s previous scheme. Mark Andrews is hurt, but the wide receiver trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers and Rashod Bateman provides the Ravens with plenty of options to beat man coverage and the capability to create yards after the catch as well, especially against a 49ers defense that has been sloppy tackling lately. The run game is a smorgasbord of concepts that feature the running backs (though losing speedster Keaton Mitchell for the season really stinks) as well as Jackson’s legs.
Baltimore has battled injuries in basically every position room (what else is new?), but this offense can pivot throughout the game to get after defenses. Against this current iteration of the 49ers? An eye will surely have to be on the injury report, for both teams.
How offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley feels is huge for the Ravens. But the 49ers’ injuries leave some potential gaps to be picked at. Lenoir is battling a rib contusion.Teams were able to isolate Isaiah Oliver in man coverage when he was the 49ers’ slot defender to start the season. Will he be picked on by the Ravens’ wide receiver trio if he has to play?
San Francisco’s starting defensive tackle pairing of Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave also missed last week against the Cardinals, something that showed up several times over the course of the game. Armstead and Hargrave are both day-to-day and their importance cannot be overstated enough, especially when defending the run but also unlocking the 49ers’ terrifying pass rush looks that feature Nick Bosa and Chase Young aligned over each side of the center:
Even when healthy, there are still holes to pick at with this 49ers defense. Getting the Niners into their base personnel can create avenues to move the ball. While still good at defending the pass, the 49ers are a bottom-10 unit defending the run with their base personnel on the field. Baltimore’s Gus Edwards is another big-bodied running back, much like the Cardinals’ James Conner, a body type that the 49ers’ athletic but smaller linebackers had difficulty corralling at times.
It’s always interesting to see what Monken and the coaching staff decide is going to be the Ravens’ main attack. What is a sure thing, though, is that Jackson is going to operate whatever is called to the fullest. The 49ers’ defense dares quarterbacks to be aggressive, and Jackson is one of the first quarterbacks you think of in attempting to push each concept to its limit.
How they decide to test the 49ers down the field, and whether the Ravens’ offensive line can hold up, is going to be a test for 60 minutes (or more). If Jackson delivers, and stays away from one of his wonky turnovers that a team like the 49ers loves to create, then those MVP murmurs are going to start getting louder.