NFC West: Matt Ryan

Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Russell Wilson, left, and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have their teams on different paths.
The last meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks was memorable.

In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.

How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.

ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:

McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?

Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.

The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?

McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.

Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?

Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.

Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?

McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.

I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?

Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.

The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?

McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.

 

Double Coverage: Rams-Falcons

September, 12, 2013
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Ryan-Long Getty ImagesThe question for the Falcons in Week 2 will be how quarterback Matt Ryan matches up with the punishing Rams pass rush, led by defensive end Chris Long.

Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White drew a lot of attention in the offseason when he compared the Falcons’ offense to “The Greatest Show on Turf."

That was the nickname for the St. Louis Rams in their heyday. Ironically, the Falcons host the modern-day Rams on Sunday. The Falcons didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, while the Rams won their opener against Arizona.

ESPN’s Nick Wagoner and Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup between St. Louis and Atlanta.

Yasinskas: I still believe the hype about the Atlanta offense, even after the disappointing showing against New Orleans. I think the Falcons simply hit the wrong team at the wrong place and time. The Saints were motivated by a rowdy crowd that was celebrating coach Sean Payton’s return after a season-long suspension. I think we’ll see more of what the Falcons are about when they play in the Georgia Dome. Still, I think the offensive line remains a major concern and could limit quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to get the ball to his playmakers. Nick, the Rams did a nice job of getting pressure against Arizona. How good is this pass rush?

Wagoner: Everything the Rams do on defense is based on the idea of having a strong pass rush. The defensive line, in particular, is the team's greatest strength. It's not just starting ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, either. The Rams have signed three key backups to contract extensions since March and have a group of eight under control through the end of 2014. Long is the mainstay but Quinn has the upside to become one of the two or three best pass rushers in the league. His three sacks and two forced fumbles last week were a big reason for the Rams' season-opening victory. You mentioned concerns about the offensive line. It looked like that group struggled against New Orleans. Exactly how much of a concern is that for Atlanta right now and what are that unit's weakest spots?

Yasinskas: The offensive line is a huge concern. The Falcons released right tackle Tyson Clabo in the offseason and center Todd McClure retired. The Falcons thought they were covered because they easily could move Peter Konz from guard to center and they thought Mike Johnson was ready to be the starting right tackle. Konz will be just fine at center. But Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and the Falcons have had to turn to second-year pro Lamar Holmes. He's starting next to guard Garrett Reynolds and that leaves the right side of the line as a big question mark. The left side of the line isn't exactly top shelf either, so this line could be the weak spot for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Speaking of weak spots, what's the biggest one for the Rams?

Wagoner: After Week 1 there are multiple options, including persistent penalty problems, inability to convert turnovers into touchdowns and an underwhelming run game. The most glaring issue coming out of that game, though, was the Rams' struggles in pass coverage. The Rams sat in soft zones for most of the game and Arizona's Carson Palmer carved them up for 327 passing yards. Veteran Cortland Finnegan had probably his worst game as a Ram, giving up six completions for 96 yards and a touchdown and committing a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties. Janoris Jenkins was pretty good on his side but it seems the Rams don't trust he and Trumaine Johnson (who is the third corner) to come up and press consistently just yet. The soft coverage had a sort of nullifying effect on the team's strong pass rush at times because it allowed Palmer to get the ball out quickly. Switching gears a bit, there's an obvious major storyline in this one involving Atlanta running back Steven Jackson. After nine years in St. Louis, how is Jackson adjusting to his new digs?

Yasinskas: Jackson had one big run in the opener, and I think the Falcons really are only beginning to figure out how to properly use him. He's a huge upgrade over Michael Turner, who got old in front of our eyes last season, and that left the Falcons without even the threat of a running game. Jackson changes that. The Falcons still are a pass-first team, but they want to include a healthy mix of Jackson as both a runner and receiver because that should only open the way for big things from White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. How are the Rams adapting to life without Jackson?

Wagoner: The Rams maintained throughout the offseason that they wanted to go with the en vogue running back by committee approach. Then Daryl Richardson clearly won the starting job, Isaiah Pead struggled and was suspended Week 1, and rookie Zac Stacy battled some injury issues in camp. Richardson got a bigger workload than expected against the Cardinals, and the Rams seem comfortable giving him the ball 20-plus times. There wasn't much room to run against the Cardinals, and the Rams know they need to improve there moving forward. Pead returns this week and the Rams want to see more of Stacy. Clearly, the jury is still out in regards to the running game. While we're on the topic of young position groups, it looked like the Falcons' young corners did pretty well without Asante Samuel against New Orleans. What did you see from that group last week and are you expecting Samuel to be ready to go this week?

Yasinskas: I think Samuel will return this week. But the Falcons are very high on rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They're going to be targets because they're rookies, but they did all right in the opener against a very talented New Orleans passing offense. The thing that really has sped up the development of Trufant and Alford is that they got to work against White and Jones every day in training camp. The results weren't always pretty, but it made them both better players. They still might have some of the usual ups and downs for rookies, but they're only going to continue to get better. It’s time for our predictions.

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick No. 11 when ranking the 32 projected NFL starting quarterbacks for 2013.

Jaworski now says he thinks Kaepernick can become an all-time great. Jaworski, speaking in the video atop this item, pointed to Kaepernick's arm strength, accuracy and mobility. He also pointed to the coaching Kaepernick is receiving from Jim Harbaugh and staff.


Early returns are indeed promising. Kaepernick ranked second to Peyton Manning in Total QBR as a starter for the regular season and playoffs. Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Eli Manning rounded out the top 10.

Smith's presence on that list stands out, because he hadn't produced at that level previously. I do think the offense in San Francisco forces teams to account for the run, setting up quarterbacks for success on early downs. That is when Smith in particular flourished. As Jaworski points out, there is no denying the physical ability Kaepernick brings to the position. Put him in the 49ers' system and the potential is there, no doubt.

Now that we've begun work on that Hall of Fame bust, let's revisit what Jaworski said when ranking Kaepernick 11th among starters earlier this offseason:
"Normally 10 NFL starts is not enough for me to evaluate a player so highly, but this kid has special talent, is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with a power arm and outstanding athleticism.

"Remember this? It was a signature play of the 2012 season. It was Kaepernick’s first touchdown run against Green Bay that really caught my attention. You see the press man coverage with two deep safeties. It turned out the Packers doubled Michael Crabtree. But the point is the same. This is what mobile, athletic quarterbacks can do versus man-to-man coverage, especially on third down. It forces defenses to rethink their concepts, it limits their tactical options.

"I remember Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears. It was immediately evident that he gave the 49ers every dimension in the passing game. And I love the way Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman set up Kaepernick with defined reads through the use of shifts and formations.

"Watch what happened here from the coaching tape. All that pre-snap movement was designed to get Vernon Davis matched on linebacker Lance Briggs. As favorable as the matchup was, that was still not an easy throw.

"That’s why Kaepernick has a chance to be very special. He has a complete throwing skill-set with a powerful arm that I absolutely put at gun level. His ball comes out with a lot of energy and velocity. And Kaepernick can drive the ball down the field, on the move, with accuracy.

"Kaepernick is one of the four or five most physically talented quarterbacks in the entire NFL. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts to the loss of Michael Crabtree, but the elite skill-set is still there."
San Francisco 49ers fans should take a look at what Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has to say about the NFC Championship Game.

Ryan sat down with Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com to analyze key aspects of the game that vaulted San Francisco to its first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.

A few things stood out from a 49ers perspective:
  • Not how it works: Ryan suggests the Falcons would have won the Super Bowl had they scored a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal during a drive late in the first quarter. This is quite a leap. Four additional first-quarter points certainly would have helped the Falcons in a game they lost, 28-24. Still, we cannot reasonably assume the 49ers would have approached the rest of the game exactly the same if the score had been different. Score differential drives strategy. First-quarter plays do not stand alone.
  • Willis' coverage: Ryan refers to 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis as the "worst cover guy" on the field for one pivotal play. This was the play late in the game when Ryan suffered a shoulder injury. The 49ers' Aldon Smith impeded running back Jason Snelling's release from the backfield. Ryan said he held the ball too long before taking a hard hit from Ahmad Brooks. Referring to Willis as a coverage liability seems like a harsh assessment for a player as great as Willis has been year after year.
  • Strategy tips: Ryan goes into the 49ers' tendencies, noting specifically which coverages the 49ers would and would not play during certain down-and-distance situations. Knowing how Ryan feels about specific defensive looks will not necessarily give the 49ers an edge when they face the Falcons during a Week 16 game this season. It cannot hurt, either.

Overall, it's clear this game still bothers Ryan. I wonder how the 49ers might feel about Ryan's selective accounting of it.


Joe Montana recently listed Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning as his five top active NFL quarterbacks, in no particular order.

No surprises there, although Eli Manning might not automatically qualify with the others if we polled a wider audience, in my view.

Montana withheld from consideration a younger group featuring Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.

"Still too early, but they look great," Montana tweeted.

Montana apologized for leaving off Joe Flacco, but he didn't say which of the other five would leave the list to make room.

Montana's list featured the top four players in Total QBR over the past three seasons, with 1,000 pass attempts as the minimum for consideration. Eli Manning ranked eighth over that span. Kaepernick (76.8), Griffin (71.4), Wilson (69.6) and Luck (65.0) ranked among the NFL's top 11 in QBR last season, with Kaepernick at No. 3.

The chart below shows leaders since 2010. Check out the ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions for Rodgers and Brady. Both were in the 4.5-to-1 range, well above the others. Kaepernick was at 3.3-to-1 last season, compared to 2.6-to-1 for Wilson. Those figures ranked among the NFL's top seven last season.
What comes to mind after the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals agreed on a trade sending Carson Palmer to Arizona:
  • The price: The Cardinals are sending a 2013 sixth-round pick (176th overall) and a 2014 seventh-rounder (conditional on Palmer starting at least 13 games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter) for Palmer and the Raiders' seventh-round pick (219th overall) in 2013. Palmer has started at least 13 games in three of the past four seasons and seven times since first becoming a starter in 2004. The price in draft-choice compensation was so low because the Cardinals knew Oakland would release Palmer in the absence of a trade. General manager Steve Keim and the Cardinals' front office deserve credit for getting a starting quarterback without giving up too much. Sometimes a team acts hastily in the presence of great need, particularly when there's a powerful head coach involved. That arguably happened to an extent with the Kansas City Chiefs when they acquired Alex Smith for a second-round choice. Smith might be more appealing than Palmer, but is he that much more appealing?

  • The salary: We'll revisit initial reports on financial compensation once the numbers can be verified and put into context. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Palmer will get $16 million over two years, with $10 million guaranteed. That makes Palmer the obvious starter. And with backup Drew Stanton having received some guaranteed money as well, he becomes the clear No. 2.
  • The protection: Cardinals quarterbacks took a league-high 58 sacks last season. The team's new coach, Bruce Arians, favors a downfield passing attack. Arians' quarterback in Indianapolis last season, Andrew Luck, was put under duress and/or hit before throwing a league-high number of times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. What does this mean for the immobile, 33-year-old Palmer? Not as much as those numbers suggest. Palmer ranked seventh among qualifying quarterbacks last season in sacks per drop back. He was at 4.4 percent, below the 5.9 percent average for 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were ahead of Palmer in this category. Offensive lines deserve some blame for sacks, but quarterbacks play a huge role in them. Mobility isn't the key variable, either. Palmer gets the ball out.
  • The INTs: Palmer throws interceptions at a high rate. Perhaps he'd be better off taking a few more sacks. Palmer ranks 25th among 29 qualifying quarterbacks over the past three seasons in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Palmer is at 1.22 in this category, ahead of only Mark Sanchez (1.14), Colt McCoy (1.05), Matt Hasselbeck (1.03) and Chad Henne (0.88).
  • The impact: Palmer has been an average quarterback in recent seasons as measured by Total QBR. I would expect the Cardinals to win a few more games as a result, perhaps getting into the 8-8 range, all else equal. Arizona posted a 5-11 record last season, but that was misleading. The Cardinals went 1-11 over their final 12 games. The quarterbacking was horrendous. Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Sanchez were the only quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts to finish with a negative number in points above replacement. That suggests they were not just below average, but also worse than replacement-level players. Palmer finished the season at plus-44.7 in this category. That was 23rd in the NFL out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts -- not great, but so much better than Lindley or Skelton.

Back with more in a bit. I've revived Palmer-related charts that ran recently. The one below shows stats following the major injuries Palmer has suffered.

Point-counterpoint: Darrelle Revis trade

February, 27, 2013
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Rich Cimini does a good job laying out reasons the San Francisco 49ers might consider trading for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Revis
I'll give you five reasons to think twice.
  • Philosophy test: Smart NFL teams know drafting well beats signing veterans from other teams to inflated deals. Drafted labor is cheaper, healthier labor. After spending big in free agency to prop up a shaky roster five-plus years ago, the 49ers have taken a disciplined approach to improving the team. Revis will want a massive contract extension. If the 49ers weren't interested in signing Nnamdi Asomugha as a free agent a couple years ago, why would they suddenly part with draft compensation for the right to pay another veteran corner? It's not the 49ers' way.
  • Chemistry concerns: The 49ers have taken care of their own players. They've reached contract extensions with Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and other players they drafted. The approach has sent a strong message through the 49ers' locker room. Produce and the team will value you more than it values players from other teams. Spending big for a veteran from another team would go against form. Revis might be good enough to warrant an exception from the 49ers' standpoint, but that is not a given.
  • Misplaced need: The 49ers' secondary struggled late in the season, no question. Facing red-hot quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan had something to do with that. Also, the 49ers' pass rush wasn't as good when injuries struck Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Bolstering the defensive line and improving the pass rush should be a higher priority than loading up at corner, particularly at an inflated price.
  • Revis is injured: Revis suffered a torn ACL last season. Will he recover the way Adrian Peterson recovered, returning to form quickly? Will he struggle? Might he never be quite as dominant as he was previously? The 49ers cannot know the answer to these questions. Their medical people don't know Revis the way their medical people know current 49ers players. Giving up draft compensation for the right to overpay a veteran is risky enough. It's even riskier when that veteran is coming off major surgery.
  • The salary cap: The 49ers will clear $8.5 million from the 2013 cap if the Alex Smith trade goes through as reported. They could use the cap space for their day-to-day operations. Handing a fat contract to Revis could negatively affect the books.

What say you?
NEW ORLEANS -- Joe Flacco has picked up in the Super Bowl where Matt Ryan left off in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

The two quarterbacks have combined for six first-half touchdown passes against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers contained Ryan in the second half and won the game 28-24. They'll need another strong half to overcome a 21-6 halftime deficit against the Ravens.

The chart shows the combined first-half damage inflicted by those quarterbacks against the 49ers.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Seattle Seahawks would have been thrilled before the 2012 season if someone had told them quarterback Russell Wilson would finish third in offensive rookie of the year balloting.

Wilson
They had reason to expect better after Wilson arguably outperformed Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck while leading the Seahawks within 31 seconds of the NFC Championship Game.

Griffin got 29 votes to win the award. Luck drew 11. Wilson finished with 10.

The chart shows regular-season stats for Wilson, Griffin and the other Pro Bowl quarterbacks from the NFC (Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were the others).

Griffin was certainly a strong candidate even if Wilson was better by season's end. He was more productive than Wilson early in the season and played at a high level consistently before suffering a knee injury late in the year. Wilson was better over the second half of the season and in the playoffs.

Final Word: Super Bowl XLVII

February, 2, 2013
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» Super Bowl XLVII Final Word: Ravens | 49ers

Five nuggets of knowledge about the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII:

Vernon Davis can be an unstoppable postseason force: The seventh-year tight end has averaged 27.6 yards per reception in four playoff games over the past two seasons. He has 16 catches for 442 yards and five touchdowns in those games. That includes a five-catch, 106-yard performance against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

Since Davis entered the NFL in 2006, no other tight end with even half as many postseason receptions has averaged better than 17.8 yards per catch on them. Davis' five postseason scoring catches are two more than any other tight end since 2006. He faces a Ravens defense that allowed two touchdowns, picked off five passes and ranked second in Total QBR allowed (39.9) when opposing quarterbacks targeted tight ends.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Dave Martin49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has a passer rating of 101.2 over his first nine NFL starts.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: Through nine career starts, his production has put him in elite company. No quarterback making his first nine starts over the past five seasons ranks higher than Kaepernick in winning percentage (77.8), yards per pass attempt (8.6), passer rating (101.2), or Total QBR (84.0).

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco are among the quarterbacks ranking lower than Kaepernick in those categories through nine career starts since 2008. Although Flacco has come on strong in the playoffs this season, he trails Kaepernick in those key statistical categories even over his nine most recent starts (55.6 win percentage, 7.7 YPA, 97.4 passer rating and 47.0 QBR).

Turnovers: Teams winning the turnover battle have a 7-1 record in the past 10 Super Bowls. The 2005 Seattle Seahawks were the only team in that span to lose a Super Bowl with a positive turnover margin in the game. Baltimore is plus-5 in turnover differential in the playoffs, best in the NFL. The 49ers are tied for second at plus-2. The Ravens are averaging eight points off turnovers per playoff game, best in this postseason. The 49ers are tied for second at seven points per game off turnovers.

The 49ers' pass defense could be vulnerable: Counting regular season and playoffs, Baltimore has completed 40 passes on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That is nine more than any other team has completed. The Ravens are averaging an NFL-best 2.1 such completions per game, a figure that has risen to 3.3 per game in the playoffs. The 49ers have allowed two in each of their two playoff games, giving them up to Julio Jones (twice), Greg Jennings and James Jones. They had allowed two or more in a game just six times in the regular season, never in back-to-back games. Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin each have four such receptions in the playoffs, most in the NFL. The 49ers' Davis ranks second with three.


The 49ers' option running game is in focus: San Francisco has averaged 8.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns on 29 option rushes in the playoffs. That is up from 5.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns on 26 option rushes in Kaepernick's seven regular-season starts. As the chart shows, Frank Gore already has more yards on option rushes in the playoffs than he had in the full regular season. Kaepernick gained 99 yards on option rushes against Green Bay in the divisional round. The Ravens faced 15 option runs this season, all against Washington in Week 14. The Redskins finished that game with 93 yards and a 6.2-yard average on those plays.

Prediction: 49ers 27-23: The 49ers have the advantage in weaponry without much question. And although Flacco has never been hotter, Kaepernick has been the tougher quarterback to defend. There's a good chance that will be the case again Sunday.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 31, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- Quarterbacks are supposed to earn their money on third down. Some aren't willing to wait that long.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick took note of this after his team lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed 11 passes for 141 yards and two scores on second down in that game. He has thrown five of his eight postseason touchdown passes on second down over the Ravens' three playoff games.

Slowing Flacco on second down could be a key for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. That was among the subjects Bernie Miklasz and I discussed from radio row during our recent conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

First, we had to get past just how uncool it sounded to be singling out second-down production from all the potential Super Bowl story lines. That didn't take long, but it got worse Thursday: While hundreds of reporters were crowding into the Beyonce news conference, I was crunching second-down playoff numbers for Anquan Boldin (six receptions for 113 yards and two scores).

Boldin over Beyonce? Belichick, too.

"It felt like defensively we didn’t do a good enough job on second down," the Patriots coach said after losing to the Ravens. "We had them in a number of second-down situations, second-and-10s and those kind of things, and they got off the hook there with a couple passes to [Ray] Rice, [Dennis] Pitta, [Torrey] Smith, a run by [Bernard] Pierce."

Flacco completed only 2 of 7 passes for 43 yards on third down against the Patriots. He has completed 9 of 26 passes (albiet for an impressive 232 yards) on third down in these playoffs. His third-down Total QBR score in the playoffs (42.5) lags far behind his 93.0 mark on second down.

What is at work here? Balanced offenses should be less predictable on second down relative to third down, when defenses often can play the pass.

"Second down, they'll put it in three-wide and throw the ball," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

The numbers bear this out. Flacco's second-down numbers from three-receiver personnel have been outstanding since Week 15. He has completed 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for 355 yards (11.8 per attempt) with six touchdowns and no interceptions on those plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"When you are playing a really good offenses, everyone thinks third down is the key down," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Well, you've got to get them to third down to make third down the key down. These guys have been able to make some money on second down either with the throw or the running game.

"They have the balance that keeps you on edge a little bit on defense as far as where you want to lay your eggs."
NEW ORLEANS -- Aldon Smith was a disruptive force for the San Francisco 49ers during late, critical moments of the NFC Championship Game.

The outside linebacker still hasn't collected a quarterback sack in five games and 52 days. That bothers him a great deal.

"It fuels me," Smith said Tuesday during Super Bowl media day.

Smith had 19.5 sacks through the 49ers' first 13 games of the season. That was two more than any player had collected through 13 games since at least 2001. It made Smith one of eight players since then to reach 18 sacks in a season.

But in looking at the chart below showing the top 10 single-season sack totals since 2001, we see that Smith was the only player on the list without a sack over his final three regular-season games. Two additional postseason games have passed without Smith sacking an opposing quarterback.

Again, Smith has gotten pressure at times, particularly in the late going against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.

"First off, in most of these games where Aldon hasn't gotten sacks, he has rushed well," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Teams are throwing the ball quickly. He is getting a little bit more attention. I don't see it as an issue."

Conventional wisdom says injuries to Smith and defensive lineman Justin Smith have affected the 49ers' pass rush. Aldon Smith has been playing with a shoulder injury. Justin Smith, who has frequently set up Aldon Smith's sacks with coordinated twists, missed the final two-plus games of the regular season after suffering a triceps injury. Smith has not been full strength during the playoffs.

There are other factors.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw the ball within 2.97 seconds of the snap on average against the 49ers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was down from 3.39 seconds on average for Ryan during the regular season. The average was 3.28 seconds for Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the Ravens' victory over New England in the AFC Championship Game. Flacco's average over three playoff games has been 3.52 seconds, up from 3.30 for the regular season.

"Aldon played very well against Atlanta last week, had three or four really great rushes where he beat his guy and hit the quarterback, but the ball was already gone," Fangio said. "Another second or two, those would have been sacks."

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.

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