By Matt Vensel
The Baltimore Sun
7:00 AM EST, February 1, 2013
Each day this week, Baltimore Sun reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday’s Super Bowl. Today, he looks at how Haloti Ngata could blast a big hole in the 49ers offensive line.
In today’s NFL, with offenses lighting up the scoreboards, the battles in the trenches between 300-pound linemen often get overlooked. But sometimes, as you watch the pretty-boy quarterback drop back in the pocket or the back emerge from a forest of linemen, you can’t help but notice the massive blur flash before your eyes.
Ravens defensive tackle -- or is he a defensive end? -- Haloti Ngata is a big man who does things that big men aren’t supposed to be able to do, which is why, when healthy, he is considered one of the NFL’s best defenders.
But in Sunday’s Super Bowl, barging into the backfield won’t be easy for Ngata. The San Francisco 49ers have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a group of five bulldozers that excels in run blocking. One of their top priorities will be moving Ngata out of the way. It is a matchup that is being overlooked this week, but it is one that will likely impact the game in a major way, big bodies paving the path to a championship.
“Their offense prides themselves in being physical and trying to run the ball. They have a physical running back,” Ngata said. “We want to be physical all the time. I expect it to be a real physical game.”
HALF MAN, HALF MONSTER
Ngata is one of the most fascinating physical specimens in the NFL. Listed at 6 feet 4 and 330 pounds, the man -- at least I think he is mortal -- is built like a refrigerator, but a refrigerator that would probably smoke you in a foot race. His torso is as thick as yours is wide, and his powerful legs are seemingly the size of Ray Rice. The four-time Pro Bowler is capable of playing multiple positions in any defensive front and creating a mismatch wherever he lines up. The Ravens move Ngata all over their three-man line.
“Most men that size can’t move around and play multiple positions on the D-Line. He’s unique,” Greg Cosell of NFL Films said.
For the third straight season, Ngata had at least five sacks, which is a nice number for interior linemen, and he made 51 tackles. But admittedly, the 29-year-old has been slowed by nagging injuries to his knee and his shoulder, and while limping toward his first Super Bowl, Ngata questioned his football mortality. Still, his 38 total pressures ranked sixth among defensive ends playing in a 3-4 scheme, according to Pro Football Focus, who also graded him out as the team's best run stuffer and overall defender this season.
His Ravens teammates are still awed whenever they see Ngata flash across the screen in the film room.
“He is a grown man playing a childhood game,” defensive end Arthur Jones said. “I just love watching him. That’s a guy you have to account for every time he’s on the field [if you’re] an offensive lineman.”
The good news for them is that the massive man mountain isn’t difficult to spot before the snap, but once they figure out where he is lining up in the Ravens’ front, they must quickly adjust their blocking assignments accordingly. Then comes the difficult part, of course. Asked what is most challenging for offensive linemen when facing Ngata, ESPN’s Ron Jaworski chuckled as he blurted out, “Blocking him.”
“He’s not only stout at the point of attack, but he can rush the quarterback, he can bull-rush, he can get outside and make plays, he can split a double team,” he said. “Clearly, he is a complete interior lineman.”
NFL’S BEST OFFENSIVE LINE?
The San Francisco offensive line is arguably the league’s best group when it comes to pushing around defenders. Coaching legend John Madden thinks so, as do the guys over at Pro Football Focus. And that is what the 49ers had in mind when they started to build a Super Bowl contender through the NFL draft.
The 49ers drafted Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley in the first round in 2007. Three years later, they selected both Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis in the first round of the 2010 draft. They later rounded out their offensive line with a couple of free agents -- center Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Alex Boone -- and that group started every single game together this season.
“The offensive line is always going to be the pillar of your team because you can’t pass the ball, you can’t run the ball if they’re not playing at a high level,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “So it all starts up front, the pass protection, the run blocking. ... And those guys are really, really dialed in. [They] bought in. And they’re at the point now where there are five guys that are really functioning as one.”
The 49ers aren't great in pass protection, having allowed 41 sacks (though the sacks are down with Colin Kaepernick under center). But they are excellent in run blocking. According to Football Outsiders, they are the league's best in that department, especially when it comes to getting running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James to the second level. The 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL with 155.7 yards per game.
“Their offensive line, they’re big and strong, and Iupati is one of the best pulling guards I’ve seen in the league,” Jones said. “That’s one of the better offensive lines we’re going to face this year. They know it. We know it. We respect them and they respect us. It’s going to be a big physical dogfight.”
STRENGTH VERSUS STRENGTH
The 49ers have overwhelmed opponents with Kaepernick, Gore and the read-option running game. With Kaepernick in the shotgun or in the pistol, the 49ers force their opponents to pick their poison, as I explained in this piece earlier in the week. But the real secret to their success is that power running game.
“Usually, when the running game plays well, it’s because of clichéd reasons, but it’s the reason: They’re physical, they’re athletic, they’re very cohesive,” Cosell said. “That’s how you get really good offensive line play.”
The 49ers appear to have the edge in the trenches against the NFL’s 20th-ranked run defense, but Ngata is one man who can blow up their backfield. Quick penetration will disrupt their running game, especially when they use their read-option plays. Rest over the past two weeks will likely serve him well, and if Ngata is close to full strength, Cosell thinks he will be a handful for Iupati, Goodwin and Boone on the interior of their line.
“Ngata has been a little up and down only because, I’m sure, of injury,” Cosell said. “There have been plays in which he has been dominant like the Ngata we expect to see. There have been other plays where he has been moved. I would expect with two weeks, he’ll be more like the Ngata of old, so I think he’s a really intriguing wild card in this game because of his great athleticism for a man that size, his unbelievable strength, and his position versatility.”
Jaworski said the matchup between Ngata and the San Francisco front line will be “critical,” and with a chance to win his first Lombardi Trophy, it sounds like Ngata is looking forward to jumping in the fray.
“[Playing like a Raven] means being nasty and playing rough, tough football,” said Baltimore’s gentle giant, who was swarmed by media this week. “Playing with some type of cruelty, but not trying to kill somebody. It’s a nastiness where you’re going to impose your will on teams, so that’s we what want to do.”
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