Reading the keys: 49ers/Ravens
Put the clamps on Ray Rice
YES: The Niners did a good job clamping down on Rice, who averaged just 2.8 yards per carry while rushing 21 times for 59 yards and doing negligible damage on the ground. Rice added three receptions for 24 yards, and his most significant contribution of the evening was a 17-yard reception on a third-and-4 play late in the game that pushed the Ravens into San Francisco territory and set them up for a game-clinching field goal five plays later. Otherwise, Rice didn't do much to hurt the 49ers. He had to work hard for everything he got and got little when he did, getting stuffed for a four-yard loss on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the second quarter, with the Ravens having to settle for a field goal two plays later.
Terrell Suggs vs. Joe Staley/Anthony Davis/Alex Boone
NO: Suggs and the rest of Baltimore's relentless pressure defense embarrassed the 49ers' overmatched offensive line, with Suggs doing most of the damage, often in matchups against Davis. Suggs finished with three of Baltimore's franchise-record nine sacks and also three of the Ravens' 12 hits on quarterback Alex Smith. The Ravens got good pressure from other areas – four other players had sacks, and two had two sacks or more – but it was Suggs leading the charge in matchups from the edges, and he also contributed two tackles for losses and a forced fumble.
Pressure Joe Flacco and force him into mistakes
NO: The 49ers perplexingly allowed Flacco time to set up and throw throughout the evening, sticking with their standard approach of rushing four players on most downs to provide more coverage on the back end. It didn't work. Flacco rarely was pressured into hasty throws and wasn't sacked once the entire game while being hit just three times by a San Francisco defense that remained conservative and hesitant to blitz him. With time to scan his passing lanes downfield, Flacco picked the 49ers apart on Baltimore's game-turning 16-play, 76-yard drive to the game's only touchdown in the second half, completing 4 of 4 passes on third down to convert first downs and keep the drive moving. Flacco was spot-on when he needed to be in key sequences, and the 49ers let that happen because they didn't get in his face enough or take chances with blitzes to force him out of the pocket or into quicker decisions. Flacco completed 15 of 23 passes for 161 yards, compiled a 100.1 passer rating and had time to look over the middle to find Dennis Pitta on an 8-yard scoring pass for the game's only touchdown – the first TD reception of Pitta's career.
Protect the football and win the turnover battle
NO: With the Niners at the Baltimore 35-yard line and only 18 seconds remaining in the first half, Alex Smith took a shot at the end zone but didn't get his pass to Braylon Edwards high enough or close enough to the sideline and it was intercepted for the game's only turnover. That prevented the 49ers from cutting into Baltimore's 6-3 lead at halftime, and San Francisco could never come up with the momentum-changing takeaway it needed from its defense to turn things around in the second half. Niners cornerback Tarell Brown did appear to make a nice interception deep in San Francisco territory late in the second quarter, but it was nullified when he instead was flagged for a 50-yard pass interference penalty on the play, leading to the field goal that put Baltimore ahead at halftime.
Establish run game to set up play-action passing
NO: The Niners never got it clicking on the ground, and that led quickly to the Ravens losing respect for San Francisco's rushing attack. The Ravens virtually ignored play-action throughout the game, instead peeling their ears back and coming after Smith relentlessly, and the Niners never could make Baltimore pay for it. Frank Gore was limited to 39 yards rushing on 14 carries – his second-lowest total of the season – as the 49ers got just 53 of their 74 yards rushing from running backs. The Niners managed only four first downs rushing and couldn't get enough of a ground game going to keep the Ravens honest or slow down their pass rush.
Contain Baltimore's big-play wideouts
YES: Anquan Boldin had a 22-yard reception on the game's third play from scrimmage, but that proved to be Baltimore's longest offensive play of the game. Boldin then had a 16-yard catch on the next play to drive the Ravens into field-goal range and help them take an early 3-0 lead. But Boldin was limited to two catches and kept in check the rest of the way, as were Torrey Smith and Lee Evans, who combined for just three receptions for 31 yards. The longest catch between the latter two went for 12 yards.
Push the ball downfield with Alex Smith and passing game
NO: It's what the 49ers needed to happen in this game, but it never did, primarily because Smith seldom had time to allow receivers to get open before he was being hounded by the Ravens and either flushed out of the pocket or sacked. Smith did look long and connect with Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep pass that went for a 75-yard touchdown on San Francisco's second offensive play of the second quarter, but it was nullified by a borderline chop-block call on Frank Gore. Smith never got another opportunity like that the rest of the game, and his longest completions went for 20 yards to Vernon Davis and 18 to Michael Crabtree. That pair combined to catch 10 of Smith's 15 completions, but they averaged just 9.2 yards per reception.
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