By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts’ Whole-Hog Pedagogue
Even though the lights in the Superdome went down on the 2012 NFL season with the Ravens as the Super Bowl champs, the 49ers did not go as softly into that good night as it seemed they would when the lights prematurely dimmed.
And although a darkened dome will be the most vivid memory of many, the stars that shone brightest were perhaps the most unlikely: the Ravens’ o-hogs.
Baltimore Offensive Line the Fuel behind Flacco’s Ascension to Elite Status
When Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator from Cam Cameron, he made a few adjustments to the Ravens’ offense.
The plays come in faster, giving Joe Flacco more time to asses a defense and the running game is utilized greatly in order to set up shots downfield. In fact, the Super Bowl marked the third game out of four in the playoffs in which the Ravens ran the ball more times than they passed it with 35 rushes compared to 33 throws.
But the biggest adjustment was by sliding former Pro Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie back into the line up and moving Michael Oher out of the blind side and to the right, where he is better suited. With the adjustment, Flacco played his way to a huge new contract and a Super Bowl MVP trophy behind one of the best offensive lines in playoff history.
Baltimore’s o-hogs helped Flacco total 11 touchdowns compared to no interceptions and only allowed 6 sacks over 4 games. That unit was only the seventh on a world champion to allow 6 or fewer sacks while allowing their quarterback to throw 1 interception or less. But out of those teams, the Ravens were the only championship team to play all 4 games. So those teams totals were projected out to 4 games, and the Ravens hold their weight against some of the all-time greats.
Even though Steve Young alluded to the mid-nineties Dallas Cowboys offensive line as being one of the greatest ever assembled, the ‘12 Ravens’ o-hogs compare favorably. Baltimore’s sack total and NPP% is slightly inflated by the inordinate amount of seven and nine-step drops that the Ravens’ scheme utilizes, but their lack of interceptions makes up for it. When the passing touchdown total is also factored in, Young’s own ’94 49ers had a similar postseason, as well.
In his MVP performance, Flacco averaged 8.70 YPA passing the ball. With the amount of time he was given, he was able to find receivers downfield, despite the 49ers’ uncharacteristically blitz-heavy game plan. He was chased out of the pocket on occasion, but the double and triple teams that were slid towards the 49ers’ Aldon and Justin Smith kept them fairly silent.
Aldon’s bookend, Ahmad Brooks, could not sufficiently take advantage of his one-on-one matchups against Oher and McKinnie, ending the day with 5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 2 quarterback hits and 1 sack. Defensive end Ray McDonald had 2 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 quarterback hit and 1 sack. Aldon was held to 1 tackle and 1 quarterback hit, and Justin only put up 3 tackles.
Lastly, the sustained drives that the Ravens produced were a big difference maker. The Ravens converted 56.25% of their third downs, while the 49ers only picked up a first down on a dismal 22.22% of their third downs.
Baltimore’s D-Hogs Exchange Splash Plays for Solid Wins
The San Francisco running game was perceived to be the biggest threat to the Ravens, and understandably so for an attack that averaged 6.48 YPA in the playoffs. In fact, Baltimore gave up 6.28 YPA to the 49ers, but that does not mean their d-hogs failed in their game plan.
In order to stop a team that had 13 rushes of 15 or more yards and 6 rushes of 20 or more yards in the playoffs, the Ravens were ready to bend but not break. Their d-hogs eschewed going upfield to make a big stop, instead waiting patiently in their gaps and allowing a modest gain to a game-changing romp.
They spend more time rotating Courtney Upshaw, who is more comfortable in space, with Paul Kruger, more of a regular defensive end, and were rewarded by a forced fumble from LaMichael James in the flat. The duo was quite productive, as Upshaw accounted for 4 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and
In the first half, the longest run the 49ers were able to produce was 9 yards. They pounded the ball 15 times, and the Ravens pushed back, only allowing 53 yards at 3.53 YPA. During that half, their d-hogs frustrated the 49ers out of their game plan into more of a pass-happy look.
Being put in obvious passing situations, the 49ers ended up giving up a horrific 12.90 NPP%. The big numbers were in the columns next to some smaller names, with Kruger grabbing 2 sacks, 1 tackle for a loss, 3 tackles and 2 quarterback hits. Upshaw put in 4 tackles, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble, while Arthur Jones had 1 sack, 2 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and the pressure that forced Kaepernick to throw an interception into triple coverage.
One of the big names of the Baltimore d-hogs, defensive end Haloti Ngata, was forced from the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Not coincidentally, the 49ers began to find their big strikes on the ground shortly after Ngata left.
That opened up Kaepernick to scamper for 15 yards twice and Gore to grind out runs of 21 and 33 yards.
Now, without Ngata, the Ravens found themselves giving up 129 yards of rushing in the second half on 14 carries, resulting in a 9.21 YPA. But after Gore’s 33-yard burst on the last San Francisco drive, the 49ers stacked the box, forcing the 49ers to pass, ending the game on three straight incompletions under duress.
The only other team to lost a Super Bowl while rushing for 6.25 YPA was the ‘90 Bills, whose defensive NPP% of 5.88 was not going to stop the Giants. The ’87 Redskins were the only Super Bowl team to rush for 6.25 YPA and pass for more than 300 yards, but their defensive 18.18 NPP% and 5 sacks made their 42-10 blowout possible.
Despite the high yardage totals that ended up on the stat sheet for the 49ers, Baltimore ensured that they were not productive yards. Using scorability, Cold, Hard Football Facts’ metric for measuring yards per point, the 49ers had an unproductive 15.61, which would have ranked in directly in the middle of the league, while the Ravens’ 11.18 would have been the most effective offense in the league.
By causing 2 turnovers – defensive end Arthur Jones was bearing down on Colin Kaepernick, forcing a throw into triple coverage that Ed Reed intercepted – the Ravens won the turnover battle, which is a sure sign of victory. Out of 47 Super Bowls, 39 teams have had at least a -1 turnover differential.
Only four of those 39 teams actually won the game.
- ’70 Colts, -3: Required an unanswered fourth-quarter touchdown and field goal to pull off the comeback. A first-half fumble and interception by Unitas both led to points.
- ’79 Steelers, -2: The Steelers’ d-hogs terrorized their way to 3 sacks out of 4 total and a 16.67 NPP% to make up for Terry Bradshaw’s generous nature and 3 interceptions.
- ’88 49ers, -1: That comeback produced one of the all-time great Super Bowl game-winning drives, culminating the famous John Taylor catch.
- ’05 Steelers, -1: Speaking of unproductive offenses, the Steelers’ defense frustrated the Seahawks into an unheard of 41.0 scorability rating, compared to their second-ranked 13.09 mark in the regular season.
The Ravens hogs brought their lunch pails and put in the dirty work that made the high-flying aerial game possible, even if they were only able to crank out 2.66 YPA on the ground. By doing whatever was necessary to win, even in the absence of “wow” stats, the Ravens hogs earned the right to take Lombardi back to the Charm City.