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What must 49ers do to beat Ravens?

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SANTA CLARA — Lots of well-intentioned, reasonable people expect the 49ers to lose this game.

Nothing against the 49ers, but they’re playing in Baltimore against the Ravens, who are 5½-point favorites. They have the MVP frontrunner, quarterback Lamar Jackson. And the Ravens played on Monday Night Football just a few days ago and won 45-6. Lots of well-intentioned, reasonable people remember that game. It’s fresh in their minds. That’s why they’re picking Baltimore.

The Ravens have the NFL’s No. 1 offense, but the 49ers have the NFL’s No. 1 defense. They’re two elite teams on the way up, possibly the two best teams in the league. This could be the most important game of the season. Something very important will happen.

Here’s what the 49ers must do to beat the Ravens, and prove those well-intentioned, reasonable people wrong:

1. Pick up the Ravens’ blitzes: The Ravens blitz more than any other team, and they’re excellent at blitzing. They confuse the opposing quarterback and offensive line. Often, one of the Ravens’ blitzers breaks through the line completely untouched, then clobbers the quarterback.

“They attack,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “They try to get after you every play. You’ve got to be ready for anything. They can do crazy blitzes. It’s usually some controlled chaos by them. ”

Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t thrive in chaos. Seven of his 10 interceptions this season have come when the opponent has blitzed, because he tends to throw dangerous passes off his back foot when he’s under pressure. Against the Ravens, he needs to get rid of the ball quickly, or simply go down and take a sack. No turnovers.

Fortunately for the 49ers, Garoppolo should be prepared.

“It’s similar to what we saw last week against Green Bay,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk explained. “The Ravens have a ton of different packages, a lot of different personnel groupings. They’re bringing blitzes from everywhere. It’s nice that we got a little preview already.”

2. Decipher the Ravens’ pass coverages: Reading coverages isn’t Garoppolo’s strength.

He has a lightning-quick release and throws a beautiful spiral. But usually once or twice a game, he delivers a pass directly to a defender after misreading the coverage or telegraphing a throw.

Garoppolo can’t make those rookie mistakes against the Ravens. They specialize in making quarterbacks misread coverages.

“They do a great job at disguising it with the safeties, the linebackers all of it tied together,” Garoppolo said. “You can’t really predetermine anything until the ball is snapped.”

Some of Garoppolo’s most egregious interceptions this season happened because he predetermined a throw before the snap. Meaning he guessed someone would be open based on the defense he thought he saw, but he guessed wrong.

Sounds like Garoppolo knows he can’t guess against the Ravens defense.

3. Don’t chase ghosts: Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator when Jim Harbaugh was their head coach.

Roman still uses the same system he used in Santa Clara. It’s a smash-mouth, run-first offense with lots of tight ends and fullbacks, mixed with a college-style option run game.

To make the system even more complex and unique, Roman uses pre-snap shifts and motions more than any other team. His offense looks like Three Card Monte, and defenders don’t always know where the ball is. This may particularly affect young, inexperienced defenders such as 49ers rookie linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair. The Ravens will try to make those two chase ghosts.

“Everyone’s just got to be disciplined with their eyes,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “Don’t chase ghosts. They’ve got all these jet sweeps — it’s very similar to what our offense does. There’s a lot of moving parts. Don’t chase things because you think something’s happening. Play disciplined. Play your rules. The ball will come to you.”

4. Stop the Ravens’ run game: Not easy.

The Ravens average 210.5 rushing yards per game. They’re on pace to break the record for most rushing yards in a season. “This isn’t just zone-read,” Shanahan explained. “(Lamar Jackson) runs all types of running back runs. It’s not just a race to the sideline. You’ve got to be ready for anything. You’ve got to be ready for a Wildcat offense.”

The Ravens running game is so good, only one team has slowed it down this season — the Pittsburgh Steelers. They limited the Ravens to just 3.5 yards per carry. The Steelers defense has a young, athletic front seven. The 49ers have one, too.

Plus, they have Saleh, who knows Roman’s system as well as anyone. Saleh was a defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks from 2011 to 2013 — he faced Roman twice a year during that span. And the Seahawks routinely ruined him. One time in 2013, the Seahawks held Roman’s offense to three measly points.

“Robert, with his experience, is more than capable,” Shanahan said.

5. Stop the zone read: The Ravens have a diverse run game with lots of different plays. But their go-to play is the zone read. It’s the same play Colin Kaepernick ran with Frank Gore. The quarterback holds the ball out and reads an unblocked defensive end. If the defensive end runs to the quarterback, the quarterback hands the ball to the running back. If the defensive end runs to the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs himself.

This 49ers did not defend the zone-read well this season when they faced Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray, two mobile quarterbacks in the NFC West.

“Could have been better, definitely,” Nick Bosa said. “I think we have a pretty good plan this week, though.”

The plan against Wilson and Murray was to make them run the ball as much as possible, because they would rather throw, are better at throwing than running. Each runs only a few times per game.

But Jackson would rather run than throw. He averages more than 11 rushing attempts per game and more than seven yards per carry. The 49ers need to make him hand off to a running back as much as possible. Need to get the ball out of his hands.

“We’re doing something a little different this week,” Bosa said.

The 49ers could do what the Steelers did, and blitz, and then blitz some more. A well-executed blitz destroys the zone read in the backfield, so neither running back Mark Ingram nor Jackson has room to run. Or, the 49ers could hit Jackson every time the Ravens run the zone read, and make the Ravens pay for calling that play. The 49ers have options.

In other words, the 49ers need to turn the game into a pocket-passing contest between Garoppolo and Jackson. Garoppolo is a better pocket passer than Jackson, who is by no means an elite pocket passer. If it comes down to Jackson passing, the Ravens will lose.

Final score: 49ers 13, Ravens 12.

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