Super Bowl showdowns: Ray Rice and the Ravens know running won't be easy vs. 49ers linebackers

SUPER BOWL XLVII

January 31, 2013|By Matt Vensel | The Baltimore Sun

Each day this week, reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday’s Super Bowl. Today, he looks at how the 49ers may try to keep Ravens running back Ray Rice out of the end zone.

In Ray Rice, the Ravens have one of the NFL’s most versatile playmakers, a running back who is capable of grinding out tough yards between the tackles and producing big plays outside of them. He is a slippery runner inside the red zone. And he is one of few legit runners who can also flex out wide and do damage as a receiver.

Rice will be the most dangerous offensive player on the field Sunday, but the last running back to be named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was Terrell Davis 15 years ago. The odds are stacked heavily against Rice bucking that trend on Sunday -- and no, it’s not just because quarterbacks are usually the ones who take home the hardware.

The Ravens' opponent Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers, is known for a brick wall of a defensive front that helped them rank second in fewest points allowed and third in total defense during the regular season. And when it comes to stopping the run, 49ers inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are often immovable objects, blocking running backs like Rice from escaping into the open field.

“Tremendous linebackers. Outstanding tacklers,” ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said. “They’re not necessarily guys that come in with reckless abandon to blow up a running back. They come in with good, clean, hard tackles. You can tell they’re very well coached in the fundamentals of playing linebacker. You see very few missed tackles from those inside linebackers. I guess that’s the reason they’re All-Pros and don’t leave the field.”

A DUAL-THREAT RUNNING BACK

Rice, whom the Ravens locked down with a lucrative contract extension last July, had another strong regular season and was voted to his third Pro Bowl in four years. Often running behind fullback Vonta Leach, who was also selected to another Pro Bowl, Rice, a fifth-year running back, rushed for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns and added 478 receiving yards and another touchdown on 61 receptions. Combined, he averaged 101.3 yards per scrimmage per game, which was eighth among running backs.

Rice’s big plays are well-documented on the highlight shows -- including the playoffs, he has made a dozen plays that gained 27 or more yards -- but the best example of what Rice is capable of doing as a receiver came in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers. On a do-or-die fourth-and-29 play, Rice caught a desperation dump-off near the line of scrimmage, danced around several defenders and dove through a pair of Chargers to improbably get the nose of the football past the marker. Few, if any, other running backs have the skill set and the determination to make a play like that.

“I like to catch the ball. I don’t mind catching them,” Rice told reporters Wednesday. “A catch for me is like a long hand-off. Once I get it, the stat book says different, but you can make a big play on a catch.”

Rice leads the NFL with 247 rushing yards this postseason, but he also has received more carries (64) than any other back and is averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. His backup, rookie Bernard Pierce, has actually rushed for more yards in the team’s past five games, but the fact that Pierce has also been productive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Over that span, the duo has combined for 740 yards on the ground.

Pierce and his physical style of play is a nice change of pace from Rice. But make no mistake, the 49ers will put the bulls-eye on Rice in the Super Bowl. He is still the most dangerous of Joe Flacco’s weapons.

THE LEAGUE’S BEST LINEBACKERS

The best inside linebacker in football will be wearing a No. 52 jersey in Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m not talking about Ray Lewis. That distinction goes to Willis, “a young lion” who is one of many younger players who Lewis advises. Willis wears No. 52 for a reason, and some have labeled him “the next Ray Lewis.” Instinctive and rangy, Willis can make plays from sideline to sideline and fill the stat sheet in many ways.

“He is a younger Ray Lewis,” Leach said last week. “He’s like what Ray has been doing for a long time.”

Willis’ partner on the inside, Bowman, is an All-Pro, too, as is pass rusher extraordinaire Aldon Smith. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is the only one of the group that isn’t a Pro Bowler, but he’s no slouch, either. Together, that starting quartet is a talented, versatile group that rarely comes off the field.

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