Read-option will test Ray Lewis, Ravens' defense
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 4:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 2:28 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS — For an NFL fullback, life is one long meet-and-greet: Meet a linebacker in the running lane, and greet him with a helmet to the sternum. The 49ers' Bruce Miller has gotten to know some very nice linebackers that way, and this Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens will present a unique opportunity.
"There's a lot of good players in this league," Miller said, "but to get to go up against Ray Lewis, who's one of the greats, is exciting for me."
It's likely that no player on the Superdome field will draw as much media attention as Lewis, who has announced his intention to retire after a stellar 17-year career that has analysts debating whether he is the best linebacker in NFL history — or possibly the best defensive player at any position.
Miller played linebacker in high school (Woodstock, Ga.) and college (Central Florida), and always followed Lewis' career closely. Who didn't? Playing solely for the Ravens, Lewis is a 13-time Pro Bowl pick and a seven-time first-team All-Pro. The only other time Baltimore played in the Super Bowl, after the 2000 season, he was named the most valuable player.
But Lewis has a difficult assignment in Super Bowl XLVII. He's part of a cast charged with getting a handle on the 49ers' pistol offense — and, even more specifically, on the zone-read option plays that have been bedeviling defenses.
The Niners aren't the only team to run the read-option these days. Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton had great success with it in 2011, as did Washington and Robert Griffin III this season. Russell Wilson has run it for Seattle, too.
Each team varies the system in subtle ways — as Baltimore safety Ed Reed noted, the 49ers' method is different because there is no pitch man — but the basic concept is the same: The quarterback puts the ball in the halfback's gut while watching the outside-contain man (a defensive end or linebacker), and has the option of either handing off up the middle or keeping the ball and racing to the outside.
Nobody has done it better than Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. In an NFC divisional playoff game three weeks ago, the Packers keyed on Frank Gore and Kaepernick destroyed them, setting an NFL-quarterback record with 181 rushing yards. Not all of those yards came on the read-option, but many did, including the 56-yard run that gave San Francisco its final lead.
The Falcons learned from the Packers' mistakes and worked to keep Kaepernick contained in the NFC championship game. So Gore and LaMichael James combined for 124 rushing yards.
The Ravens would seem to have a stronger defense than either of those two NFC opponents. But NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, renowned for his rigorous film study, thinks the 49ers have an edge.
"I really believe — and I know this may be blasphemy to some — but Ray Lewis is going to struggle against this offense," Cosell told Bay Area radio station KNBR last week. "Because they're going to make him have to run. And I don't think he's at the point in his career, in fact I know so, where he's gonna be able to do that really well. Now, he's still a terrific between-the-tackles run defender. But the 49ers give you so much more than just 'here's Frank Gore up the middle, stop him.' "
The 49ers have been speaking more reverently about the veteran linebacker.
"I think he's playing at a very high level," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "And a lot of our coaches, we all kind of get together and we spend about half a day diving into the opponent. And then we all kind of get together and start talking about it. So the other day one of the comments was just how good he looked."
For the third time in his career, and the first since 2005, Lewis missed an extended period of time with an injury. He tore his right triceps against the Cowboys on Oct. 14, and the Ravens used the new "designated to return" tag to put him on their injured reserve for the remainder of the regular season. Lewis was back for the playoffs and immediately returned to form. He leads all NFL players with 44 tackles this postseason; next most is 26, by teammate Corey Graham.
"I've always said that anytime you can give your body a true rest — not just your body, anytime you can give your mind a certain rest from the game from the every-week wear and tear — when you come back, you come back just as fresh as ever," Lewis said. "For me right now, I feel fresh. My mind is fresh, my body is fresh and I'm just excited to really be able to end this thing up the right way."
Of course, Lewis won't be taking on the 49ers single-handed. Reed is a future Hall of Famer as well, and guys like outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive end Paul Kruger are playing at a high level. All of them are gearing up for the challenge of stopping Kaepernick and the read-option.
"We're going to have to tackle him," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "We're going to have to keep him inside and in front of our defense. We're not going to be able to run past him. He's fully capable of putting 200 yards on you in a second, just as capable as Frank Gore is, or any of their running backs. ... Assignment football is going to be really important for us."
To help in those assignments, the Ravens have enlisted a pair of mobile quarterbacks, Tyrod Taylor and Dennis Dixon. Taylor, a second-year player from Virginia Tech, is backup to starter Joe Flacco. Dixon, who ran a vicious spread offense at Oregon, is on Baltimore's practice squad. You can bet both of them have been running plenty of read-option this week as they do their best to imitate Kaepernick in practice.
"They're having fun being him," Suggs said. "It's a fun offense to run. It's not a very fun offense to play against."
(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.)