On the surface, the headline story of the Thanksgiving night game is San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh taking on his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, the first brother vs brother head coaching matchup in NFL history. In fact, they're the only brother head coaching combination in NFL history.
But, once the whistle blows, the 49ers and Ravens game will feature two smashmouth teams on the field. If Thursday’s game comes down to running the football, both teams will be up against a stingy run defense.
2011 NFL Ranks
The Ravens are allowing only 3.3 yards per rush, the lowest mark in the NFL. Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense has the best EPA (Expected Points Added) rushing per 100 plays at -18.8. This adjusts for down/distance, field position and time remaining. (Note: only accounts for designed rushes, not QB scrambles.)
San Francisco is also one of three teams to not allow a rushing TD in its first 10 games since the merger, joining the 1997 49ers and the 1986 New York Jets.
While the Ravens have built a reputation as one of the toughest defenses in the league, the 49ers are more of a surprise. San Francisco can thank Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman, one of the best middle linebacker duos in the league, for their success.
WillisWith Willis and Bowman, San Francisco has one of the best rush defenses, relying heavily on their front seven to stop the run. The 49ers load the box, when the defense has more players in the box than the offense has available blockers, on only 8.6 percent of the opposing team’s plays, fewest in the league. Expect the Ravens to apply more pressure, as they load the box on 19.5 percent of the time.
Opposing running backs have a tough time breaking tackles against the 49ers, as their defense is allowing 1.55 yards after contact per rush, second-lowest in the league.
When it comes to short-yardage situations, both teams offer little real estate. The 49ers have allowed nine rushing yards on eight rushes (1.13 yards per rush) in goal-to-go situations this season, compared to 1.26 yards per rush allowed by the Ravens.
On third down rushes with three yards or fewer to gain, San Francisco has limited opponents 0.50 yards per rush on 10 rushes, while Baltimore allows only 1.46 yards per rush on 13 rushes.
You can't ignore the impact that Harbaugh has had on the 49ers in his first year with the club. The 49ers were coming off a 6-10 season and haven't made the playoffs since 2002. This year, Harbaugh had led the 49ers to a 9-1 start, as many wins as the other three NFC West teams have combined this season.
Longest Winning Streaks
Rookie Head Coach Since 1970
Harbaugh turning around a team isn't unprecedented. He took over a Stanford team that went 1-11 in 2006, and in each of his four seasons with the school, improved its record up to his final year, when he led the Cardinal to an 11-1 record and an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
San Francisco has won eight straight games since an overtime loss in Week 2 to the Cowboys. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the fourth-longest win streak by a rookie head coach since the NFL-AFL merger.
Should the 49ers win on Thanksgiving and the Seahawks lose Sunday, San Francisco will clinch the NFC West, just 11 games into the season. That would tie the mark for fewest games into a season to clinch a division title since 1978, last done by the 2009 Indianapolis Colts.