The last 10 years of Super Bowls have taught us that there will be 80 plus passing plays in the game, and that means sacking the quarterback is critical for the team that wants to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Joe Flacco has been sacked once for every 17 pass attempts this year including playoffs. As fast as Colin Kaepernick is he's been brought to the ground once every 14 1/2 pass plays. There are opportunities to sack these quarterbacks, so which pass rusher will have the biggest impact and possibly be the biggest reason his team wins the game?
When it comes right down to it, the key battles are these: Terrell Suggs vs. Joe Staley and Aldon Smith vs. Bryant McKinnie. At first glance Suggs-Staley looks to favor San Francisco since Suggs has only played half the season due to injury and Staley is a Pro Bowl tackle.
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Not so fast. Look at the history of these matchups and the postseason production.
A year ago the Ravens and the 49ers met on Thanksgiving night and Terrell Suggs had his way with Joe Staley. Granted it was Alex Smith under center, but Suggs beat Staley and others for three sacks, two tackles for loss, three more hits on the QB and a forced fumble. Aldon Smith was up against Bryant McKinnie and he didn't have a sack on Flacco or even a hit. History suggests Suggs will play bigger but what does the 2012 playoffs say about which man will get to the QB the most?
Suggs looked like the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year in the playoff game against the Denver Broncos. He had 10 tackles, two sacks, one tackle for a loss, one hit on the QB, a forced fumble and a pass defended. When I watched that game Suggs looked a lot like the guy who played the 49ers on Thanksgiving 2011. For the playoffs Suggs has 19 tackles, two sacks, four hits on the QB, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He is rounding into playoff shape and surely wants to go against Joe Staley.
Aldon Smith has a different scenario lately. He hasn't had a sack in five games, including the playoffs, and he has been in on three tackles with a hit on the QB and a forced fumble in two postseason games. Some speculate it was the games he played late in the year without Justin Smith, but Smith has been back for the playoffs and still, very little from Aldon. Some believe his injuries have kept him from being the aggressive young player who recorded 19½ sacks this season. That may be true but he needs to return to the form that made him a 2012 All Pro. Only JJ Watt and Von Miller got more defensive All Pro votes this season.
As for meeting up with Bryant McKinnie in a rematch of last Thanksgiving, that will be a challenge. Last year Smith did not sack Flacco and only got one hit on him. McKinnie is playing better right now than he has in years. So far in the playoffs McKinnie has given up 1 1/2 sacks to Dwight Freeney, Von Miller and Rob Ninkovich in 97 post season pass plays.
Recent history says advantage Suggs over Smith.
The Baltimore no-huddle offense will create more stress for Smith. In the AFC championship win over the Patriots, Flacco went sans huddle 28 times -- 10 runs for 52 yards and, more importantly, 18 passes with 12 completions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. He was only sacked once. I went back and looked at a December 16 game when the 49ers played the Patriots and Tom Brady's no huddle. Brady used it 20 times, completing 7 of 9 for 91 yards with no sacks and called 11 runs for 59 yards and a TD. You can bet the Ravens' Joe Flacco has studied that game tape and can't wait to use the no huddle.
Finally, I asked a few coaches at the Senior Bowl last week about the battle to pressure and sack the quarterbacks in this game. One coach said, "If San Francisco can't get Aldon Smith in Flacco's face he will add to the eight postseason completions over 25 yards." The best comment on Kaepernick and pressure was: "After watching how effective he was from the pocket against the Falcons you better get him on the ground or you lose."
Keep an eye on the game within the game.