Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer breaks down this upcoming game against the Ravens in his latest online and 49ers GAMEDAY program column, Points of the Game.**
The Ravens have had a phenomenal defense over the past few years, but they haven't been playing well recently. They have given up a lot of points and a lot of yards, and have only gotten six sacks on the season. Normally you would expect them to come after Trent Dilfer because he is not as mobile as Alex Smith is, and maybe that's how they will try to get back on track. Obviously, they are going to look at what the Seahawks and Steelers did, and will probably continuously blitzing Trent until he can show he can handle the pressure or beat them with a hot route throw.
The Ravens secondary has three all-pros back there in Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, and Samari Rolle, although Rolle has been out the last few weeks with an undisclosed illness. They have been troubled a bit on their left side, which is where McAlister and Dawan Landry play. Landry is a new starter for them and sometimes it takes a while for the new safety and corner combination to learn how to work well together, so they have been giving up some plays in the short and intermediate areas.
The 49ers ability to stretch the field vertically is affected without having Vernon Davis in there, which makes me wonder why we have rarely seen Ashley Lelie. We have seen him ten snaps in the first four games. Even if the 49ers aren't throwing the ball to him, I would like to see him in there running deep routes to loosen up the secondary a little. His speed is what he has been noted for over the years, and I think just having him in there running vertical routes helps open up the secondary.
The team also re-signed Bryan Gilmore, who is a better route runner and is much faster than Taylor Jacobs. Jacobs had a great training camp, but it seemed like he wasn't the same guy on game day. There are some guys that aren't great practice players, but just elevate for game day, and then there are guys who practice well but disappear on game day, as was evident with Taylor. He had way too many drops for the number of opportunities he had. It was a tough decision made by the 49ers, but it was the right one. The 49ers desperately need to stretch the field offensively and that's something that can be done with Gilmore.
The Ravens have been easier to throw against than run, so the 49ers need to make plays through the air, especially because the 49ers have struggled early on in the run game. The Steelers were the toughest defense they have faced in terms of running the football, but the Ravens have been tight too. The Ravens have only given up about 71 yards a game on the ground.
The thing that has hurt the Ravens is the absence of their Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce who has been out with a wrist injury. He is a four time Pro Bowler and has been replaced by a guy who has never been a starter in the NFL in Dwan Edwards. Look for the 49ers to attack that left defensive end area.
Defensively, the 49ers will need a solid effort against a team that has been effective in controlling the clock.
Quarterback Steve McNair has been nursing a groin injury but he made it through the entire game against Cleveland and threw for 307 yards. He had a career game against the Browns, throwing the ball 53 times, which may be the most ever by him. He's also completing almost 65% of his passes.
If McNair shows any sign of fatigue with that groin injury, Brian Billick will play Kyle Boller, who has performed really well in relief. He came in for the winning drive against the Cardinals in week three and set up the game winning field goal. So, the 49ers will have to prepare for two different kinds of quarterbacks. Both of them are capable of running, but Boller more so. Boller also has amazing arm strength. The 49ers just have to continue to pressure the quarterback like they have been doing the first few weeks.
McNair often looks to Derrick Mason and Todd Heap as his primary throwing targets. Heap injured his hamstring and missed practice time on Wednesday, along with the backup tight end Daniel Wilcox who has a foot injury. If both are unable to go, the Ravens will have to go with Quinn Sypniewski.
The absence of Heap really impacts this offense because he has been by far their most effective receiver. Mason has 33 catches, but for only an 8.7 yard average, which means he is only catching a lot of dump, slant, and stop routes whereas Heap has consistently been their big play guy. If he can't go, it would really hurt their ability to stretch the field and open things up for their receivers.
Baltimore might try to adjust their game plan into more of a run first offense. Willis McGahee had his best week last week getting over 100 yards on only 14 carries. They will try to just run smash mouth football and open it up with a controlled passing game.
Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden has started to practice this week after suffering a toe injury that has kept him out of the lineup recently. I'm sure McGahee's early struggles had something to do with Ogden being out, but the Ravens line did play well together last week.
Adam Terry, their starting right tackle, has come in and replaced Ogden on the left side with Marshal Yanda, a player who had never started before in the NFL, replacing Terry at the right spot. What that does, much like in the first game against the Rams, is weaken the line at two spots. Terry has had to change stances, similar to what Rams tackle Alex Barron had to do which helped the 49ers total six sacks in that game.
The Ravens had a similar situation when they played Arizona, giving up four sacks but they did improve last Sunday by shutting out the Browns defense in terms of sacks.
Savvy veteran defensive linemen like Marques Douglas and Bryant Young will do their best to exploit any weakness they can find still in this offensive line.
McGahee is similar to Willie Parker, who the 49ers faced in week three. He has tremendous outside speed, but enough power to rip it inside. The 49ers need to do a good job penetrating and not letting him get that corner.
They also need to look to continue to punish the receivers as Michael Lewis and Mark Roman have done this season. Lewis came to this team with a reputation of being a hard hitting safety, and so did Nate Clements, but as a physical player. It's a little bit of a surprise how infectious their style of play has become, as was the case when Roman knocked the receiver, Hines Ward, out of the game a couple weeks ago. Roman continued on that path last week against Seattle by delivering some hard blows out there. I don't believe the 49ers defense is not going to be intimidated by the receiving corps of the Ravens whatsoever and I look for them to bang up on these guys.
Though Mike Nolan has only been gone three years, pretty much half of the Raven's defense is gone from when he was there. But between him and Mike Singletary, they know Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Bart Scott, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs as well as anyone. They know their strengths and more importantly, their weaknesses. So I am sure Nolan will spend a lot of time with offensive coordinator Jim Hostler this week. Mike knows which guys get fooled by counter plays and which guys get sucked in on certain routes.
I don't think there are any advantages for Billick because the defense for the 49ers isn't being run completely by Nolan. It is being run by defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, so there are enough tweaks and subtle changes to the defense that it won't be a huge advantage for Billick.
I think an interesting point in this game will be the kickers. 49ers kicker Joe Nedney and Ravens kicker Matt Stover have about 30 years combined experience. Stover missed two kicks last week while Nedney has been perfect on the year. I think seeing these two guys will be fun to watch. It just seems that in the NFL, in the last 10 years, kickers seem to get better as they get older. Fans may look at Nedney and think he is getting old and may not have much left. All you have to do is look across the field to Matt Stover who is in his 19th year, and that should be a good sign to 49ers fans that Nedney should be around for years to come.