1. The Ravens, I: Joe Flacco’s Deep Ball
The Ravens’ offense is relatively ordinary aside from two particular attributes. ESPN commentator Ron Jaworski recently said that Joe Flacco has the strongest arm in the NFL, and while there are a few other guys who are in that conversation, Flacco definitely belongs in the upper echelon. In addition to raw strength — picture Joe Flacco, right now, bicep-curling 13-year-old humans — Flacco also has enough touch to be a successful deep-ball guy.
In the above play, from Baltimore’s double-overtime win over Denver in the divisional round, Flacco hits an open Torrey Smith in stride for a touchdown. As one of the fastest guys in the league, Smith’s his best deep-receiver asset; Jacoby Jones is also solid when he manages to haul in the pass.
2. Flacco connected with Smith again in that game, aided by a tremendous catch by Smith.
Part of Flacco’s ability to throw the deep ball has to do with the protection he gets from the Ravens very good offensive line — he’s only been sacked four times through three playoff games.
3. The Ravens, II: Ray Rice’s Screen-Play Elusiveness
The Ravens’ other primary weapon is running back Ray Rice. Rice is a great on-the-ground runner, but he’s also one of the league’s best pass-catching backs, particularly when it comes to screen passes. On this play, the Ravens let New England penetrate behind the line and then dump the ball to Rice. As you can see when he’s circled in red, Rice fakes like he’s engaged as a blocker and then loses his man, catching the pass.
4. From there, he’s able to take it out of the backfield with his agility and great acceleration, making four Patriots players miss on his way past the first-down marker.
5. The best example of how dangerous Rice is on catching passes out of the backfield came earlier in the season, against the San Diego Chargers.
On 4th and 29 late in the game, Flacco, who was clearly looking deep, can’t find anyone open and so drops it to Rice, who’s basically at the line of scrimmage when he fields it.
6. Rice is one of the few guys who can beat seven guys for 30 yards.
7. The 49ers, I: Colin Kaepernick’s Read Option And Scrambling
The 49ers have a more well-rounded, dangerous offense than the Ravens, but they also have two primary areas in which they’re particularly strong right now. Through the playoffs so far, the Niners’ offense has been spectacular both passing and running the ball, and both running the ball with Colin Kaepernick and running the ball with Frank Gore and LaMichael James. But Kaepernick’s ability to eat up yardage on the ground is what truly facilitated their blowout of the very good Green Bay Packers, and it’s probably the main thing Baltimore needs to try and stop: Atlanta kept Kaep from running and only lost by four.
The above play is a read option from the Packers game, in which Kaepernick fakes a handoff and takes off down the right side.
8. Yeah — that’s a quarterback outrunning defensive backs. He can’t be allowed to get outside the front seven, because he’s got more than enough speed to outpace them down the sideline.
9. The other wrinkle in Kaepernick’s ground game is that he can call his own number when he sees an opening.
That read option was a designed running play; here, Kaepernick drops back to pass, but as soon as he sees that gap on the left part of the line, he heads for it and makes it to the end zone — 20 yards downfield — before Green Bay can react.
10. But Kaepernick isn’t a one-trick pony. He has been tremendous throwing the ball as well, as this pass to Vernon Davis shows.
The Ravens have to cut off some part of his game, though, and with a young quarterback, it’s better to try and make him rely on his decision-making in a stressful environment.
11. The 49ers, II: Vernon Davis’ Speed And Strength
Speaking of which: aside from Kaepernick, the 49ers’ most dynamic offensive weapon is aforementioned tight end Vernon Davis, who savaged the Falcons to the tune of 106 yards and a touchdown. Davis poses a particular problem for the Ravens’ defense, which, with Ray Lewis at linebacker, suffers against passes to the middle of the field. (Ray Lewis is old and slow.)
12. Not only one of the fastest tight ends in the league but also one of the fastest players in the league, Davis can beat most defenders physically: he’s either bigger or quicker.
13. Although Michael Crabtree also poses a huge threat in the passing game, he’s less of a matchup nightmare than Davis, who seems to be building chemistry with Kaepernick after some quiet games during the regular season.
14. THE ULTIMATE X-FACTOR: Ray Lewis’ dancing.
You can’t quite gameplan for that.