The Ravens will attempt to stay in base personnel as long as possible in order to run the ball and wear down former Bengal Justin Smith, who has a partially torn triceps. Smith is able to occupy two blockers at once, and if the Ravens are forced to pass early than a fresh Smith will give enough trouble to McKinnie and left guard Kelechi Osemele that outside linebacker Aldon Smith will blow past them on the stunts on every pass attempt.
The 49ers rarely rush more than four on pass attempts, so the Ravens would prefer to stay in their base personnel in order to keep 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who is replaced in the nickel defense, on the field. Flacco does not throw the deep ball, his bread and butter, nearly as well under pressure, so keeping Sopoaga on the field would be a huge benefit.
But in order to stay in base personnel, the Ravens must run successfully against the best inside linebacker pairing in the NFL in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Both can play man coverage surprisingly well for 3-4 inside linebackers, but their bread and butter is how they work so well to stop the running game. The strong-side linebacker, Willis, is usually the first responder and, if he does not make the stop, Bowman can swoop in and make the tackle.
Throw in the fact that former Bengal Ahmad Brooks is outstanding at setting the edge against the run (I am sure the Bengals are regretting not trying him out at Sam linebacker) and it could be tough sledding. In fact, the 49ers’ two-high safety looks are tough to run against despite the mathematical advantage that they should provide.
Even without an extra man in the box, the Ravens’ deep ball and running game will be challenged by the 49ers multiple coverages run out of the formation. Wide receiver Torrey Smith may be the best deep threat in the league and can run past any man coverage. But the 49ers, despite playing their share of two-man under, throw in disguised coverages that could confuse Flacco and affect the running game.
In the inverted cover 2, the 49ers safeties run down to the flats where a cornerback would traditionally play in a Cover 2 zone while the cornerbacks drop back to play deep coverage. Flacco can still exploit this coverage as long as he does not panic, which is why a clean pocket is so important. With the safeties in the flats, that also makes it harder for Ray Rice to turn the corner than it would be with cornerbacks taking the spill duties.
When the 49ers play quarters coverage, with each safety and cornerback taking one-fourth of the top of the coverage, the safeties can be more liberal in attacking downhill. Of course, by establishing the run up the middle, especially with Bernard Pierce, the Ravens can lure the safeties down and beat the 49ers over the top. But, again, it all boils down to who wins the physical battle up front.