NEW ORLEANS -- For his next act, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will try to accomplish what Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady could not pull off in these NFL playoffs. Kaepernick will try to lead his team past the Baltimore Ravens.
No bar appears too high for Kaepernick to clear after the second-year pro helped the 49ers overcome a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game. But as Super Bowl week cranks up, Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been cast as the "hot" quarterback. He has eight touchdown passes without an interception in three playoff games, placing him within statistical striking distance of 49ers greats Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Against that backdrop, NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley pick up the Kaepernick discussion from New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII.
Sando: Kaepernick's NFL career began amid some questions over whether the 49ers should have traded up to draft him in the second round out of Nevada. More recently, there was debate over whether 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was wise to bench Alex Smith in favor of Kaepernick. The debate now is ... what?
Jamison, do you have a sense yet as to how the Ravens are viewing Kaepernick? Are they seeing him as a dynamic quarterback with victories over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in his first nine starts? Or do you get the sense Kaepernick still must earn their respect as an inexperienced QB?
Hensley: The Ravens definitely respect Kaepernick, but they know they're dealing with a different quarterback than the other ones they've faced in the past two weeks. This goes beyond his freak athleticism. Baltimore knew it couldn't intimidate the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But I get the sense that the Ravens feel that they can rattle Kaepernick if they can hit him early.
You saw what Haloti Ngata did to Robert Griffin III this season. The problem, of course, is trying to run down Kaepernick. This is where the respect comes in. "Assignment" is the buzz word among the Ravens' defense. The players know they have to play disciplined defense. They can't have any breakdowns or missed tackles. That will result in a Kaepernick touchdown. The key is not allowing Kaepernick to get to the outside. The job of containing him will fall on Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger.
Mike, what do you think is the biggest mistake defenses have made against Kaepernick?
Sando: It's a pick-your-poison situation. Blow an assignment and Kaepernick can take it the distance, as Green Bay proved in the divisional round. Commit additional resources to containing Kaepernick on the edge and you're going to get a face full of RBs Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for three touchdowns against the Falcons. Containing Kaepernick's rushes isn't enough.
Kaepernick averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt from inside the pocket in the NFC Championship Game. He stayed in the pocket on 21 of 23 drop-backs. He had only two rushing attempts all game. But he still posted a 90-plus Total QBR score for the second time in two playoff games. No one else has more in the five-year history of the metric.
The key is making a quarterback uncomfortable. We might not call it "rattled" when it happens to Manning or Brady, but we're talking about something similar. The 49ers would not say they rattled Brady early in their Week 15 victory over the Patriots, but they affected him. They made him jumpy. That was one of the reasons they jumped to a 31-3 lead in the game.
Kaepernick did not appear comfortable on the road against Seattle. But he has led a touchdown drive immediately after each of his four interceptions this season. He plays with attitude and rushed for more than 4,000 yards in college, so he's used to taking some hits. I expect the 49ers to run the ball with Gore. There's no reason to invite trouble with a pass-happy plan early. We should see heavy doses of the 49ers’ ground game -– including some option looks featuring Kaepernick.
Hensley: The Ravens are no strangers to mobile quarterbacks. They played Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III this season. Vick ran for 34 yards on 10 carries and his longest run was 8 yards. RG III managed 34 yards rushing on seven attempts and didn't break a run longer than 13 yards. This is surprising to me because the Ravens don't have the same speed on defense they've had in previous seasons.
Sando: Kaepernick rushed for only 21 yards in the NFC Championship Game. However, the threat of his running made it tougher for the Falcons to defend the entire offense. Kaepernick has attempted 49 of his 52 postseason passes from the pocket. But the 49ers have also run more plays from the pistol formation in two postseason games (62) than they did all season (44). Kaepernick is also a threat on scrambles. Overall, he has three rushes of at least 50 yards this season, counting playoffs. Only Adrian Peterson has more.
Hensley: Ravens players said Kaepernick reminds them more of Vick than RG III. They don't think watching their tape of how they played against Washington will help them because the 49ers' blocking schemes are different. The Ravens want to force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. Even though the Ravens' cornerbacks are far from household names, Cary Williams and Corey Graham have two interceptions each in the playoffs. Since 2008, when John Harbaugh became head coach, the Ravens have 22 interceptions in the playoffs. That's twice as many picks as any other team in the league over that span.
QBR: Divisional and Championship Rounds
Sando: Kaepernick threw a pick-six against the Packers in the divisional round, so he’s not immune to making mistakes. Overall, however, he leads the NFL in Total QBR (82.6), yards per pass attempt (8.6) and starting quarterback won-lost percentage (77.8, tied with Matt Ryan) for the regular season and playoffs combined. We all know how hot Flacco has been for Baltimore. That 8-0 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions is impressive. But Kaepernick and Kurt Warner are the only quarterbacks over the past five seasons with two single-game QBR scores in the 90s during the playoffs. Kaepernick has done it in two starts.
Hensley: The Ravens' defense has been as hot as Flacco. Baltimore has allowed four offensive touchdowns in three playoff games and none have come on the ground. In the second half of the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens shut out Tom Brady and the Patriots, the highest-scoring team in the NFL this season.
Baltimore is doing this without getting tremendous pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens have only six sacks in the postseason. That wasn't the case 14 months ago, when the Ravens sacked Alex Smith nine times. But I think we can both agree that the 49ers are a different team and definitely a different offense now.
Sando: Kaepernick is one of the biggest differences for the 49ers. He takes sacks far less frequently than Smith took them. Kaepernick is much more dangerous as a runner. He has a stronger arm. He gives the 49ers their best chance to win.