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Ravens Insider: Ravens face something new in 49ers, a team good enough to make them look bad in ‘game of the year’


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This scenario is new for the 2023 Ravens.

They were underdogs just once before. They have lost three games, but through 14 have yet to be clearly outplayed.

In the San Francisco 49ers, however, they will face not just the best team in the NFC, not just the current favorite to win Super Bowl LVIII but an opponent that could make them look bad if they don’t come out sharp on Christmas night.

The 49ers have the same 11-3 record as the Ravens. In fact, they’ve lost two games to AFC North opponents — 19-17 to the Cleveland Browns and 31-17 to the Cincinnati Bengals — though they were diminished by injuries at the time. But they have built an aura over six straight victories, all of them resounding, and their star power is such that they seem almost designed in a lab to exploit the Ravens’ vulnerabilities.

This rare prime-time matchup between the AFC’s best and the NFC’s best could impact playoff seedings, could decide a Most Valuable Player race in which 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is the current favorite ahead of Lamar Jackson. But it’s more elemental than that for the Ravens: a chance to see where they stand against an equally accomplished team.

“I know they’ve beaten a lot of teams pretty bad,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “So I think it’ll probably be the game of the year.”

Humphrey and his teammates didn’t bother acting like this is a ho-hum matchup, even though they’re trying to take a business-as-usual attitude to preparing. When they gathered for their first training camp practice five months ago, hopes high but the road ahead long and twisting, this is what they had in mind.

“You work for these kinds of moments, these kinds of games,” 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.”

Coach John Harbaugh expects a smorgasbord for hardcore NFL fans, who live to break down tactics and matchups.

“I think football fans — real football fans — are going to look at this one and really be intrigued by all that,” he said. “They do so many good things. It’s a system that [49ers coach] Kyle [Shanahan] has built forth through the tradition of his dad [Mike Shanahan], and he’s taken it to another, even, place. He really has expanded it and evolved it in a great way, and he does it around his players. I mean, you’ve got five, probably, All-Pro skill guys on that offense, not to mention a really good offensive line and a Hall of Fame tackle.”

Asked to identify the greatest threat posed by the 49ers, Harbaugh replied: “How could I even pick one? There’s so many.”

As he alluded to, the daunting task begins with a 49ers offense that ranks third in the league in scoring, first in yards per play and first in FTN Fantasy’s defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), a metric that breaks down every NFL play and compares a team’s performance with a league-average baseline base on situation and opponent. There is no segment of the field San Francisco cannot attack. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has caught 40 passes beyond 10 yards, per Pro Football Focus. His partner, Deebo Samuel, has 35 receptions inside 10 yards but averages 9.4 yards after the catch. Running back Christian McCaffrey has caught just three passes beyond 10 yards but leads the team in receiving touchdowns with seven. George Kittle averages 15.7 yards per reception and is easily PFF’s highest-graded tight end.

“The way they’re able to make those guys interchangeable parts is impressive,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said.

Because he was the last player picked in the 2022 draft and because he’s working with an embarrassment of riches, Purdy is sometimes dismissed as a “system quarterback,” but Ravens defenders brushed past that notion.

Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum talks with the media after practice at Under Armour Performance Center. (Kevin Richardson/Sun Staff)
“You work for these kinds of moments, these kinds of games,” Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum said. (Kevin Richardson/Staff)

“I just think that’s not true, just from what I’ve seen,” safety Kyle Hamilton said. “He’s making every throw that you can make as a quarterback. It’s on time, on target. He makes good decisions, he’s mobile, and he’s got a great cast around him at the same time.”

The Ravens have allowed fewer yards per attempt than any defense in the league, and just as the 49ers attack everywhere, they have defended every part of the field fairly well. Their coverage numbers are worst, however, against running backs (24th in DVOA) and tight ends (14th in DVOA), not the greatest recipe against McCaffrey and Kittle.

That said, don’t tell the Ravens they take a back seat in these matchups.

“I’m betting on us 10 out of 10 times, 11 if you want to add one,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “I think they have a lot of weapons and really good distributor in Purdy, who can get it out to those guys. They definitely have a lot of weapons, but so do we. I like our team versus any team.”

Smith’s lateral speed along with that of his linebacking partner, Patrick Queen, will be essential against McCaffrey and Samuel as will Hamilton’s unusual length and physicality from the nickel spot.

The Ravens will also look to disrupt Purdy with their multi-pronged rush. He has thrown well against blitzes, but his PFF passing grade drops from an excellent 91.1 when he’s kept clean to 58.4 when he’s under pressure.

The 49ers’ efficiency extends to their running game, where McCaffrey averages 5.3 yards per carry with 13 scores. Again, it’s difficult for defenses to focus on one spot; though the Pro Bowl running back does most of his damage going left, he’s efficient going both up the middle (6.4 yards per carry, per PFF) and outside the tackle (5.4 yards per carry).

The Ravens, meanwhile, rank just 14th in success rate against power runs and 20th in the percentage of runs they stuff at the line of scrimmage, according to DVOA creator Aaron Schatz.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) throws the ball against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
The 49ers’ efficiency extends to their running game, where Christian McCaffrey averages 5.3 yards per carry with 13 scores. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

For all their offensive weapons, the 49ers have just as many stars on defense, led by All-Pro edge rusher Nick Bosa, All-Pro inside linebacker Fred Warner and two of the best interior pass rushers in the league, Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave. They’ll go at the Ravens’ battered tackles, Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses, who have ceded snaps to Patrick Mekari and Daniel Faalele in recent weeks. Stanley struggled to plant on his injured right knee last Sunday, allowing seven pressures on 26 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF, before he left to be examined for a possible concussion. Bosa will be at least as difficult an assignment as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Josh Allen, who did much of that damage against Stanley.

“Morgan and Ronnie have battled through a lot of bumps and bruises and nicks here and there, and they’ve fought through it,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “We’ve had to deal with other fronts, and this is just another one of those challenges. They do a great job up front, they’re awfully well-coached and they’re very talented. We’ll have our work cut out for us, just like we did last week.”

San Francisco is more vulnerable to the run, but the Ravens just lost the top big-play threat from their backfield when rookie Keaton Mitchell suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Jackson, of course, is the true centerpiece of their running attack and the playmaker who will present just as many headaches for the 49ers — “He really is good at whatever they try to do,” Shanahan said — as San Francisco’s stars present to the Ravens.

That’s why the eyes of the football world will be on this matchup, which could be reprised in the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh knows how good the 49ers are but has also developed a deep appreciation for his team’s adaptability to each opponent and each game situation.

“That’s the thing about this team; it’s a very mature team, and I think they understand the challenge in front of them, and they understand their opponent, and they understand themselves,” he said.  “You get into the game … and they also understand game situations really well. That’s what you have to do this time of year, and I really hope that that expresses itself over the next few weeks.”


Week 16

Ravens at 49ers

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ABC, ESPN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: 49ers by 5 1/2

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