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Ravens face super test in trying to cut a superhero down to size

Photo: John W. McDonough/SI

QB Colin Kaepernick rushed for a position playoff mark 181 yards in the 49ers' 45-31 win over the Pack.

There has been a lot of talk about Colin Kaepernick's tattoos, but would you believe he drew them all on his body himself? I didn't say it's true. I asked if you would believe it.

With Colin Kaepernick, we'll believe almost anything.

There are 91 football players in this Super Bowl and one superhero. Kaepernick is the superhero. He has been more than great for the 49ers">49ers. He looks like new technology. He leaves you in awe.

Ask yourself: Which quarterback would scare you the most if your team faced him in a playoff game next week?

1. Tom Brady

2. Peyton Manning

3. Colin Kaepernick

I suspect many fans would choose Kaepernick over the two best quarterbacks of the last 20 years. And the reason is simple: We have seen Manning and Brady fail in the playoffs -- the Ravens just beat both of them. Kaepernick has only succeeded. So it is hard to picture how a team stops Kaepernick.

I think to most fans, the Super Bowl comes down to this: The Ravens have to stop Kaepernick.

But how?

Football coaches often say they want to make an offense one-dimensional: Take away the run or pass, and the opposition becomes predictable.

In a sense, the 49ers are three-dimensional: they have their traditional running plays, option running plays and pass plays. As Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said this week, they can't try to take away everything on every play. That just doesn't work. They must prioritize.

This is not a vintage Baltimore defense. The Ravens finished around the middle of the league in most defensive categories. The difference between the great Baltimore defenses of the past and this year's defense are largely the difference between the historically great play of Ray Lewis and Lewis now, at the end of his career.

At his best, Lewis made more plays from sideline to sideline than any player in the NFL. Offenses could not escape him. These Ravens are far more susceptible to plays busting open outside of the tackles than they used to be.

And yet, they have not been burned by a running quarterback. Robert Griffin III ran for 34 yards against them. So did Michael Vick.

The most rushing yards for any quarterback against the Ravens this year: 35, by Andrew Luck on the opening weekend of the playoffs.

Kaepernick's brilliance is that he makes defenders look foolish. He fakes a zone-read handoff and six defenders chase the running back. Baltimore has a veteran, smart defense. The Ravens get beat, but they rarely look foolish.

"You have to play the game honest," said Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a good friend of Kaepernick's who ran some zone-read at Virginia Tech. "You have to have a guy accounting for the quarterback, and the dive guy. Teams have to be disciplined. It's easy to get out there and try to guess where it's going, but that's where a lot of teams go wrong. You have to stick to the assignment and the basics."

One theory about the zone-read is that defenses should keep hitting the quarterback, no matter what happens on the handoff, to wear him down. The Ravens do not plan to do that.

"Blowing up No. 7 when you know he doesn't have the ball really serves no purpose," Pees said.

I asked 49ers backup Alex Smith about stopping Kaepernick, and as you might imagine, he said, "PLEASE find a way." No, I'm kidding. Smith was his usual gracious self. He said this week that zone-read running plays share one critical component with conventional passing plays: You have to protect the quarterback. Perimeter blocking is essential.

"Kap's been very smart with the ball in his hands, hasn't taken any big blows," Smith said. "Our guys on the perimeter have blocked really well -- haven't allowed any free shots on the quarterback. For as much as he's ran it since he's been in there, he really hasn't been hit with any big blows."

The Ravens have to trust that their players will stay disciplined against those designed option plays. And on traditional running plays, the Ravens are actually fairly well-suited to facing the 49ers.

Even though the Niners often use the pistol formation and are on the cutting edge of offense in many ways, they run a lot of traditional running plays with Frank Gore. The Ravens do pretty well against that type of running game. It's the outside runs, like the ones the Houston Texans use, that give Baltimore the most trouble.

That's the theory for the Ravens: Limit the option stuff, hold your own against the traditional running plays, and then see if Kaepernick can win the Super Bowl as a traditional drop-back quarterback. Maybe he can. But that's the Ravens' best hope. The Ravens already beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. In this Super Bowl, they will try to make it look like they are facing Brady or Manning again.

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