AFC North: Aldon Smith

Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo was running with the second-team defense at last week's mandatory minicamp. Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick, has his sights on starting the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 8.

“I’m very determined," Mingo told The Plain Dealer. “That’s the goal. That should be everybody’s goal. You want to play, you want to help the team win, but you’ve got to put in the work.”

For Mingo's rookie season, the more important number is sacks and not starts. Terrell Suggs and Aldon Smith were both situational pass-rushers as rookies and both made major impacts. Suggs was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2003 after recording 12 sacks, and Smith fell a half a sack shy of tying the all-time rookie sack record with 14. They combined for one start in their first seasons in the NFL.

One of the blog's loyal readers, Kovacs from Dallas, wrote that he hoped the Browns would follow the Smith model. He envisions Mingo "as an explosive, well-rested player in fourth quarters to blow by offensive linemen worn out from playing the entire game."

What's the likelihood of Mingo matching the productivity of Suggs and Smith? According to Pro Football Reference, 31 rookies have managed double-digit sack seasons in the 31 years since they became an official statistic. Reaching 10 sacks is an impressive feat for a rookie. But, based on history, it's not an impossible one.
NEW ORLEANS -- Unlike the Baltimore Ravens' change at offensive coordinator this season, the change on the offensive line was forced upon the team.

Left guard Jah Reid dislocated a toe in the regular-season finale, and the Ravens decided to take a gamble. Instead of just plugging in Bobbie Williams into Reid's spot, the Ravens moved right tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard, shifted left tackle Michael Oher to the right side and put Bryant McKinnie in at left tackle. Baltimore has used this offensive line combination on every snap in the postseason after not using this lineup for one snap in the regular season.

The reshuffling has certainly paid off for the Ravens. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked only four times on 99 dropbacks (one sack every 24.8 dropbacks) in the playoffs. That's much improved than getting sacked once every 16.3 dropbacks in the regular season.

"You’re really rolling the dice, switching guys around like that," right guard Marshal Yanda said. "You’re in the playoffs, so if something goes wrong or you have a bad game, we’re done and we’re not here right now. Those guys did a really good job of not missing a beat. That just speaks well to how good of players they are."

The key to the success of the offensive line has been left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was almost not on the Ravens this year. Just before the regular season, McKinnie posted on Twitter that he had been released by the Ravens. But, after taking a $1 million pay cut, he remained with the team in a reserve role all regular season.

McKinnie, 33, has looked strong and fresh this postseason, allowing just one sack. Now, he'll go against 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks in his first 13 games this season but none in his last five.

"What Bryant's been through can't be overstated," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "All year, to sit and wait and wait. To his credit, he kept himself ready, kept himself in shape. He kept himself mentally ready to go. He didn't play all year, and here's (Indianapolis defensive end) Dwight Freeney. The next week, here's (Denver's) Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The man's done a great job. It's a tribute to his attitude and work ethic."
Joe Flacco, Aldon SmithGetty ImagesRavens quarterback Joe Flacco will face his toughest challenge in Aldon Smith and the 49ers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is riding one of the greatest postseason runs an NFL quarterback has ever ridden.

Only six quarterbacks have thrown more touchdown passes in a single postseason than Flacco, who has eight in these playoffs.

But the San Francisco 49ers will provide Flacco's toughest test of the postseason. Since Vic Fangio took over as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011, San Francisco has allowed the fewest points (15.7) and second-fewest yards (301.3) on a per-game basis.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley break down the matchup between this strong-armed quarterback and stingy defense.

Hensley: Everyone laughed at Joe Flacco when he said he was the best quarterback in the NFL this offseason. Look who's laughing now. I'm not saying Flacco is the best quarterback in the league, but he's playing at a different level right now.

Sando: I know "playing at a different level" sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true. The smart numbers back this up in a big way.

Consider that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers finished first through fifth, respectively, in Total QBR for the regular season. All posted figures in the 70s or higher, well above the 50-point mark reflecting average contributions to winning.

I think we’d all agree that those guys were very good. Flacco finished 25th with a 46.8 mark. So, unless Flacco somehow defied a system that correctly identified the best and worst quarterbacks in the NFL, there was some reason for skepticism entering these playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens have won playoff games in past seasons with Flacco at quarterback, but he has been much, much better during this postseason -- not just relative to the regular season, but relative to past postseasons as well.

Flacco's eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions tell us as much. So do the advanced stats. Flacco’s Total QBR has spiked to 77.5, third-best in the playoffs. It ranged between 17.6 and 41.9 for him in previous postseasons.

Hensley: The difference with Flacco is his ability to get the ball downfield. He's averaging 16.7 yards per completion by going deep to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. I expect a similar game plan from the Ravens, especially after watching how Matt Ryan was able to hit some big plays against the 49ers in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. How does San Francisco go about slowing down Flacco?

Sando: The 49ers gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on a blown coverage in the NFC Championship Game. These longer passes have been a bit of problem for the 49ers during the playoffs. That is a concern in this game.

During the playoffs, the 49ers have allowed 66.7 percent completions with three touchdowns and one interception on passes traveling more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The 49ers are allowing 17.6 yards per pass attempt on these throws. The numbers were much more impressive during the regular season (36.3 percent completions, two TD passes, six picks, 10.5 yards per attempt).

The 49ers' pass rush, diminished since Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith suffered a triceps injury in Week 15, finished strong in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco needs to pick up in the Super Bowl where it left off against the Falcons.

Hensley: What has impressed me just as much as Flacco's downfield passing has been his decision-making. He's not chucking the ball downfield any chance he gets. Flacco is waiting for the one-on-one matchups and exploiting them. That's the main reason why he hasn't thrown any interceptions in the playoffs. In fact, Flacco hasn't been picked off since he had an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown against Denver on Dec. 16. He has gone 19 quarters of play without throwing one, a span of 162 passes. That's an amazing stretch for Flacco, whose previous best streak was 137 passes. A big reason why Flacco hasn't thrown interceptions is he's getting time to throw. If the 49ers can get pressure on Flacco, especially early, he has to continue to take care of the ball.

Sando: The 49ers do not blitz much. They have sent five or more pass-rushers just 6.9 percent of the time in two playoff games, easily the lowest rate this postseason (32.4 percent for everyone else). They really need Aldon Smith and Justin Smith to play well. Neither has dominated for some time. Aldon Smith did get pressure on Matt Ryan as the NFC Championship Game progressed. That was one reason the 49ers put Ryan under duress on six of his final 12 drop backs.

What kind of pass protection should we expect from the Ravens?

Hensley: Based on the playoffs, I would expect a very safe pocket for Flacco. The Ravens made a change on the offensive line and it has totally changed the passing game. Left guard Jah Reid was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury just before the playoffs began. That meant right tackle Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher shifted to right tackle and Bryant McKinnie got out of John Harbaugh's doghouse and into the starting lineup at left tackle.

The result: four sacks allowed in three playoff games. The key matchup is McKinnie versus Aldon Smith. McKinnie has given up just one sack in the playoffs, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. If the 49ers get too much heat on Flacco, look for the Ravens to get the ball to Ray Rice in space whether it's on swing or screen passes. Rice has been quiet in the playoffs as a receiver (four total catches) but he's dangerous in the passing game. Just look at fourth down-and-29 in San Diego.

Sando: If the 49ers could hand-pick two inside linebackers to chase Rice around the field, they would probably pick the ones they’re taking into this game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They should be OK in that aspect of the matchup. But there are no guarantees Aldon Smith, playing with a shoulder injury, is going to consistently win those pass rush battles against Bryant McKinnie.

Yes, McKinnie’s career has been disappointing in recent seasons, but he was the seventh pick of the 2002 draft because he has talent.

McKinnie was at left tackle last season when the Ravens limited the 49ers to zero sacks. We should note that Justin Smith gave McKinnie problems in the running game. Still, though, that 16-6 defeat for the 49ers stands as one of three zero-sack games for San Francisco’s defense over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The 49ers’ offense scored only 22 points in those three games, however. It’s not like the Ravens were in any obvious passing situations against San Francisco last season.

Hensley: Some Ravens players have told me that the key to their running game is getting linemen to the second level, especially against Bowman, who is getting a lot of respect here in Baltimore. The Ravens need the running game to work early to avoid those obvious passing situations you pointed out, Mike, and set up the play-action, which Flacco uses quite well.

This game is such a role reversal for Flacco after going through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC gauntlet. He's now the experienced quarterback compared to Colin Kaepernick. After eight playoff games and three trips to the AFC Championship Game, he understands what it takes to win in the national spotlight. He needs to convert third downs, produce touchdowns in the red zone (he already has five touchdowns inside the 20 this postseason) and not make costly turnovers. If the Ravens are going to win, it's going to be because of Flacco.
San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith told the Sacramento Bee that the 49ers weren't targeting Ben Roethlisberger's injured ankle in a Dec. 19 game.

Smith
Smith
"Our goal was to win the game," said Smith, who had 2.5 sacks that game. "We don't go out and talk about hurting other players, their ankles, or injuries or any of that. We were going out to win the game. The quarterback, he controls the game. So if he got hit, it happens."

While no one expected any of the 49ers to admit they went after Roethlisberger's ankle, Smith's defense is supported by the research done by my NFC West colleague Mike Sando, who found no evidence of it when he reviewed every Steelers offensive play from that game.

Roethlisberger never accused the 49ers of putting a bounty on him, but the Steelers quarterback did suggest this month that San Francisco was targeting his injured ankle.

When asked about the last time he felt a team was going after his knees, ankles or head, Roethlisberger said on "The Dan Patrick Show" on May 10: "Um, wow, that's tough. I don't really complain about that stuff, either. But I think when we played San Fran, I felt like there were some things going on, some extra ... "

The Sacramento Bee pointed out that the 49ers' defense was penalized three times in that game, and none involved a hit on Roethlisberger.

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