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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Ravens vs. 49ers is a throwback game that will be won in the trenches | COMMENTARY


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The Ravens’ matchup against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night might be one of those old smash-mouth games in which both teams rely on strong running games and outstanding defenses.

The team that controls the line of scrimmage and pace of the game will probably win. As much as the NFL has supposedly changed to pass-happy offenses, this game might be a throwback.

It’s like two heavyweight fighters meeting in the boxing ring.

“Well, it’s probably an interesting term,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of it being a throwback game. “I think that’s always going to be football. It’s going to always be that at the end of the day. So yes, probably it’s going to be that kind of game for sure.

“You have two strong defenses. You have two strong offensive lines, strong running games. You have playmakers on every side also and you have strong special teams, and all these things come into play in a game like that.”

This game has other interesting angles. The Ravens (AFC) and 49ers (NFC) are the top two teams in their respective conferences with identical 11-3 records. The contest features three candidates for the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy and San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey.

But that’s all part of the hype.

This game should be decided by which team is kicking the most butt in the trenches. To me, that’s entertainment.

To me, that’s football.

“You work for these kinds of moments, these kinds of games,” Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum said. “So, as a competitor, it’s certainly exciting, but also, at the end of the day, it’s two great teams going against each other, and you can’t get into the hype too much. You’ve just got to go out there and perform your best, but certainly exciting.”

The Ravens enter the game with the league’s No. 5 ranked offense and top rushing attack, averaging 163.8 yards per game on the ground. Jackson leads the team in rushing with 741 yards followed by running back Gus Edwards with 663.

But the Ravens won’t have Keaton Mitchell after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 23-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday night. The Ravens don’t have another speedster or explosive runner like the undrafted rookie on their roster.

“We’re going to miss having that guy that can just take the ball from the minus-10 [-yard line] all the way to the house any given play in any little, small window,” Jackson said. “But I believe our guys are just going to step up all across the board. Our brother went down. Things like that happen in the NFL, but we still have to have a level head and level heart. We still have a long season left to play.”

Of course, Jackson is the X-factor, as he is in every game. But instead of having to worry about Jackson and Mitchell breaking long runs off the edge, opposing teams can just focus on Jackson.

San Francisco has the No. 3 run defense in the NFL, allowing only 84.9 yards a game. The 49ers have the best group of linebackers in the league led by star Fred Warner (team-leading 116 tackes) and flanked by Dre Greenlaw (98) and Oren Burks (37).

Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram II (21) watches quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) elude San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa (97) who watches cornerback K'Waun Williams (24) also get fooled during the second quarter Sun., Dec. 1, 2019. Baltimore held on to give San Francisco their second defeat of the season, 20-17.
Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson eludes 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa and cornerback K’Waun Williams during a game Dec. 1, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

And then there is defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (40 tackles, seven sacks) and defensive end Nick Bosa (46 tackles, 11 sacks). Bosa is a stud and could cause problems for the Ravens’ offensive tackles, which has been a rotation of Ronnie Stanley, Morgan Moses, Patrick Mekari and Daniel Faalele. If you thought the Ravens’ defensive players could run to the ball, wait until you see this group.

“The defensive line is pushing the pocket,” Jackson said. “Their linebackers are flying all across the field and making tackles. Their [defensive backs] are playing fundamental, sound football.”

Statistically, the Ravens defense has played better than San Francisco’s this season. Baltimore is ranked No. 2 overall and the 49ers are No. 9, but the Ravens have struggled against the run, allowing 102.1 yards per game.

The Ravens have allowed more than 100 rushing yards six times this season. None of those teams had a player the caliber of McCaffrey, who has rushed for 1,292 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 57 passes for 509 yards and seven more scores. The 49ers are tied with the Ravens for second in the league with 23 rushing touchdowns, behind only the Miami Dolphins (26).

In the past five years, the 49ers have scored 107 rushing touchdowns, second most in the NFL.

If the Ravens stop McCaffrey, they have more than a reasonable chance of winning. Not only do linebackers Roquan Smith (142 tackles) and Patrick Queen (112) need to have big games, but so does nose tackle Michael Pierce. Their performances have fallen off lately.

Pierce is getting turned instead of staying square and needs to fight off offensive linemen to keep them off Smith and Queen. Like Bosa, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams might be the top player at his position in the game.

“McCaffrey is one of the best in our league and for good reason,” Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton said. “He’s versed at a lot of different things that you can do. He’s good in pass [protection], he’s good catching the ball, obviously, he’s good at running the ball, as well.

“He presents a lot of challenges, and he’s been doing it for a long time, so respect to him. But I feel like on our side, we have a good plan to try and slow him down, and I think if we execute, we’ll be good.”

That’s true. In this game, there are so many storylines. The 49ers have the stars in wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, McCaffrey, Warner and Greenlaw.

The Ravens have Jackson, but they are built more around the team concept. They reflect the personality and philosophy of Harbaugh. Maybe that works in the Ravens’ favor because they are going to need a strong work ethic to beat the 49ers.

Whoever controls the line of scrimmage will probably win the game.

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