Although this week’s game will not be at prime-time, the San Francisco 49ers (10-1) will once again play with the eyes of the NFL world upon them. The 49ers hit the road for Baltimore, where the 9-2 Ravens and MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson await.
Both teams are coming off dominating performances on national television. San Francisco blew out the Packers 37-8 on Sunday Night Football and the Ravens exposed the Rams 45-6 on Monday Night Football.
The 49ers will have to wake up early for their first road game since Oct. 31 and first East Coast game (10 a.m. start) since the Oct. 20 win over Washington. Yet, with a game as hyped as this, the start time should be the least of San Francisco’s worries.
Jackson is the likely MVP for a reason. He has 2,427 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns, 876 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. The Ravens’ offense does not just rely on him, they have an embarrassment of riches. Alongside Jackson, running back Mark Ingram should be a Pro Bowler with his 778 rushing yards, 169 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns (nine rushing). If the defense eliminates Ingram, Jackson still has Marquise Brown or Mark Andrews deep (both have six touchdowns and are averaging 8.9 yards per target).
Despite the lethal versatility of Baltimore’s offense, San Francisco middle linebacker Fred Warner could be the most important player on the field for one reason. He might be the only player that has the speed/tackling combination that can stop Jackson. The second-year linebacker has really stepped up since Kwon Alexander went down with injury. Warner is fresh off a career-high 92.9 Pro Football Focus grade against Green Bay and has 29 solo tackles, two forced fumbles and three sacks since Alexander went down.
Those performances include successful days against dual-threat quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson. Although neither runs as successfully or as much as Jackson, the two were great preparation for him. Jackson has 569 rushing yards before contact and 307 rushing yards after. There is not one way to stop him.
Just like Wilson, Jackson can easily bounce outside of the pocket to avoid pressure and find one of his many receivers open. If he decides to run once he escapes the rush, he is very adept at making experienced linebackers miss.The 49ers, however, are the best at limiting the big play. They have allowed just 18 plays over 20 yards, four fewer than the second-ranked Bills. Warner must convert every tackle he attempts for the 49ers to have any shot at holding the Ravens offense in check.
DeForest Buckner and D.J. Jones
The Ravens are without starting center Matt Skura, who was placed on Injured Reserve this week with a knee injury. In his place will be Patrick Mekari. The undrafted rookie out of Cal started 24 games in college, 22 at left tackle, but earned the reserve center role for Baltimore out of training camp.
Mekari has since seen limited action, but performed well when Skura was injured on Monday Night. The backup held his own against Rams’ defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Mekari’s job won’t get easier this Sunday, however, as he’ll draw the likes of DeForest Buckner, D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead.
The 49ers’ defensive line took a major leap with the offseason additions of edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. The two settled in quickly and have not only disrupted the opposing team’s offense, they have helped their interior linemates take the game to the next level as well. Even though Ford is out with injury, the returning 49ers continue to succeed.
Armstead recorded two sacks against Green Bay on Sunday Night and Buckner had a half sack. Armstead might be needed more off the edge, but Buckner and Jones will see plenty of work against Mekari. Keeping quarterback Lamar Jackson uncomfortable should be priority No. 1. If Jones and Buckner take advantage of the inexperienced blocker, the 49ers could be the first team to make Jackson look human in a long time.
The 49ers will see a familiar foe in the Baltimore secondary in safety Earl Thomas. The former Seahawk has just one interception (Sept. 2013) in 16 games against San Francisco. That may come as a surprise given Thomas and the Legion of Boom’s success against the 49ers, but Thomas made his presence known in other ways.
The 10-year NFL veteran is a leader on the field and preys on mistakes. One player Thomas will see a lot, whether in a one-on-one matchup, or across the middle in zone coverage, is George Kittle. The tight end returned from injury in grand fashion last Sunday with six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Yet, that was against a porous Packers’ defense that has allowed 756 yards and six touchdowns to tight ends. The Ravens are much better, allowing 467 yards and two touchdowns against tight ends.
Kittle might not have as many big play opportunities, but he’ll naturally get the ball at high-volume as the focal point of the offense. Even if Kittle is limited in the statsheet, he still is an excellent run-blocker and can make his usual impact by drawing Thomas’ attention away from receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.
Tevin Coleman/Matt Breida
The Ravens have allowed the third-fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season. Opposing teams average just 20.2 attempts and 87.7 yards per game against them. The 49ers, on the other hand, average 33.7 attempts and 145.6 yards. A small factor in Baltimore’s low numbers could be the fact that its opponents are often forced into throwing because of large deficits. Yet, one thing’s for sure, to beat Baltimore, you must run the ball.
The Ravens are 2-2 in games they’ve allowed over 110 rushing yards, and one of those victories was against the winless Cincinnati Bengals. Even Patrick Mahomes and the high-power passing offense of Kansas City needed to run the ball 25 times (140 yards) to scrape out a five-point win. In their other loss, Baltimore surrendered 193 rushing yards to Cleveland, highlighted by an 88-yard touchdown by Nick Chubb.
The Ravens have succeeded by getting ahead early, outscoring their opponents and forcing them to pass the ball. The 49ers cannot afford to play that game. Although quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has played at an elite level as of late, the 49ers should not fall victim to Baltimore’s trap. The best way for San Francisco to win is to run the ball, control the clock and keep the result out of Jackson’s hands.
This means running backs Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida will need to step up. Breida has missed the previous two games with an ankle injury. The team’s leading-rusher was ineffective against Seattle while battling that injury, but if he is healthy enough to contribute, his presence will be a welcome addition to a struggling rushing attack. Coleman has just one 100-yard game, a four touchdown performance against Carolina. Since then, Coleman is averaging 29 rushing yards. Those numbers will have to double at least, triple if Breida is unable to go.
Reserve tackle Daniel Brunskill just keeps finding a way into the lineup, deservedly so. He started four games at right tackle with Mike McGlinchey injured, and played very well (76 PFF). After McGlinchey returned, Brunskill was relegated back to the sideline. This past Sunday, however, Brunskill took over at left tackle, replacing Justin Skule in the second quarter.
Brunskill did not miss a beat during his switch to the blindside. According to PFF, he did not allow a quarterback pressure all night and had a 75.4 grade. That will be important this Sunday as he draws Matthew Judon or Jaylon Ferguson. Both linebackers have a knack for getting after the quarterback. Judon leads the Ravens with seven sacks and Ferguson is the NCAA’s FBS all-time leader in sacks with 45.
The 49ers will have to score a lot if they want to beat the Ravens, and a good start in doing so would be to keep Ferguson and Judon out of the backfield. Brunskill has been an unsung hero of this 49ers’ team, and if he can continue his form this weekend, he could finally draw the national attention he deserves