NEW ORLEANS — — Maybe now that the Super Bowl is less than a week away it's time to get some serious answers about The Game.
We'll continue to hear about all the other issues again this week. How much has the announced retirement of Ray Lewis lifted the Ravens? Which son will Jack and Jackie cheer for, Jim or John? Has Purple Mania taken over The Big Easy?
Here is perhaps the top question: Can the Ravens stop San Francisco and the Pistol offense?
“Part of dealing with the offense in the regular season is the lack of preparation,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the architect of the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl defense. “You don't see it all the time, so it eats up seven or eight minutes of your walk-through practice, and then you have to spend more time with it in other areas.
“I don't know how John [Harbaugh] is preparing his team, but usually you put everything in before you get [to the Super Bowl], and then you have time to reflect and fine-tune leading up to the game. The two weeks in between the game helps the Ravens. I don't see them having a problem with it as far as prep time.”
Just about everybody else did during the regular season.
The 49ers were ranked No. 11 in the NFL in offense at 361.8 yards per game, and fourth in rushing at 155.7. They were third with 26 drives of five minutes or more and second with 81 runs of 10 or more yards.
And then there is second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
During the regular season, in which he started the last seven games, he completed 136 of 218 passes for 1,814 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the postseason, he has completed 33 of 52 passes for 496 yards, three touchdowns and had just one interception. He has also rushed 18 times for 202 yards.
“They are two different quarterbacks,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said when asked to compare Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III. “They're both great. They're probably the only two quarterbacks in the league that can run that offense. But I don't know, I guess we'll see how we fare come Feb. 3.”
The Pistol offense has been around the NFL for a couple of years. Besides Washington, the Carolina Panthers have run it with Cam Newton, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have also tinkered with it.
The offense was devised eight year ago by Nevada coach Chris Ault. It's a combination of the traditional shotgun and single-back formation where the quarterback lines up 3 to 4 yards behind the center and the running back is 3 or 4 yards behind the quarterback.
You have the option to run or pass, and the freeze option running plays cause aggressive defenses to slow down. Teams are now running more pre-snap motion with it and the offense is tailor made for a quarterback who is athletic, instead of just an athletic quarterback.
“First and foremost, you have to have an athletic quarterback who has great mobility and is great in his decision making,” said former Maryland coach Mark Duffner, who now serves as Jacksonville's linebackers coach. “Then you need to have backs with good hands and vision and receivers who can block on the perimeter.
“Defensively, you have to have somebody who can play the dive, the quarterback, the pitch and all that stuff. This offense causes you to taper down your packages because you have to be disciplined and so assignment-proof. You just don't see it often so it is harder on you.”
Lewis said the Bengals were prepared for it because Cleveland used receiver Josh Cribbs in similar situations in previous years, even though Cribbs wasn't the passing threat that Kaepernick and Griffin are.
The key, according to Lewis, is discipline.
“Certain players have to play well because this offense puts pressure on them,” Lewis said. “The defensive ends have to play the dive back and then the inside linebacker has to scrape out and play the hole. Then you might have a cornerback or safety play the quarterback or one of them might be the alley guy. Regardless, you have to know your assignment and stay with it. Your eyes are extremely important.”
When the Ravens faced this offense against Washington this season, they allowed 359 yards of total offense, including 186 rushing. But most of the damage came in the Redskins' first two possessions.
After that, the Ravens settled down and controlled the game. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger, safety Bernard Pollard and end Arthur Jones played well. The Ravens this season also faced Philadelphia's Michael Vick, another mobile quarterback.
“Hopefully we try to eliminate some of the negative things that we did in both of those games,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Vick “probably is a good analogy. He is probably a good combination of both of those guys in some ways. He's not exactly like either one of them, but he has traits that are similar to both.