When I decided to count down the 22 most important players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, I didn’t imagine it was going to be all that hard. I mean, there are 44 total starters; picking half of them should be doable. Then I actually started.
Let me first explain what this list is actually supposed to represent. These aren’t the 22 best players in the Super Bowl or the 22 players I expect to make the biggest impact. This is my best attempt at figuring out which 22 players matter most, and that proved to be more difficult than I’d planned.
Even with some cheating (a few guys at similar positions are listed together, so actually there are 27 players. I'm not sorry), there are some notable omissions that I don’t feel great about. Jonathan Goodwin has been one of the best centers in football this year, but for the purposes of this list, he’s out. Not a single Ravens cornerback is listed, which isn’t to say that Corey Graham and Cary Williams won’t play a part; it’s to say that how San Francisco uses Michael Crabtree doesn’t make one side or area of the field more important than another. Dennis Pitta has been invaluable for the Ravens’ offense since Jim Caldwell took over, but I still think he’s been Joe Flacco’s third most important receiver in the playoffs. With all that in mind, here are the guys who actually did make the final cut.
22. Ed Reed
Reed has spent years torturing offensive coordinators to the point that they’re often awoken by the sound of their own screams, but there’s no denying that these days, it’s Reed hearing the footsteps. And they belong to Father Time. I don’t care how much rhino horn he eats; the 34-year-old soon-to-be Patriot isn’t the player he once was. That doesn’t mean his inclusion here is based on name alone.
Colin Kaepernick’s status as a running threat will probably force Baltimore to bring strong safety Bernard Pollard into the box for extra run support. This leaves Reed as the single deep safety against a quarterback and a team that will likely try to use play action to take at least a couple shots down the field. It’s a lot to ask, and it makes Reed a focal point in a way he otherwise wouldn’t be at this point in his career.
21. Vernon Davis
The receiving numbers weren’t there for much of the year, but Vernon Davis was still one of the best blocking tight ends in the league in 2012. It’s that, combined with what he did against the Falcons, that makes me think he plays a part on Sunday. What’s most frightening about the San Francisco offense is the different ways it can hurt you. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can go weeks without looking Davis’s way, and then there he is, as a major piece of the game plan in the NFC Championship Game.
Davis’s importance partially comes from Reed’s. With Reed as the single safety, it will be interesting to see how Roman tries to press him in the middle of the field. Having Davis move vertically in that direction could give San Francisco’s wide receivers room against Baltimore’s corners on the outside. Along with using his speed advantage against the Ravens’ inside linebackers, that might be where we see Davis make a big play at some point.
20. Bruce Miller
Yeah, I didn’t expect a fullback on this list, either. In a league of casual 5,000-yard passers, it’s hard to believe a lead blocker could be one of the most important players in determining a championship. But here we are.
Miller is a key element to San Francisco’s Pistol run game, and in a lot of ways, he makes life harder for opposing defensive ends than Kaepernick does. The sorts of midplay blocking choices that Miller has to make are complicated and demanding, and in the Niners’ first two playoff games, he’s been more than up to the task. The iteration of the Pistol run game that had the most success against Atlanta would have Miller going after Ray Lewis on Sunday, and that’s a matchup I actually think favors the 49ers.
19. Michael Crabtree
Other than his quarterback, no Niners skill player has emerged this year like Crabtree. As he’s finally learned how to manufacture separation in the NFL, those excellent hands are now of some use. Quite simply, he’s Kaepernick’s first option in the passing game, and because I imagine the Ravens will do everything they can do to take away San Francisco’s ground game, that connection will almost certainly play a role on Sunday.
18. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman
This is probably the largest discrepancy between talent and importance, and it’s actually because one takes away from the other. With how excellent Willis is in coverage, I don’t see Baltimore looking to Ray Rice much in the passing game. The main contribution these two are likely to make is actually in slowing Rice enough on the ground that it lessens the threat of Baltimore’s deep passing game. Against Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith, the smaller the burden Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner carry as run defenders, the better.
17. Bernard Pollard
The hit on Stevan Ridley is what everyone will remember from the AFC Championship Game, but Pollard did plenty to help establish the Ravens’ attitude early. Against the Niners, he’ll be asked to be a big part of Baltimore’s run defense as he slides down into the box.
16. Anquan Boldin
As someone who’s long been an ardent Anquan Boldin supporter (the dude broke his face), these playoffs have been fun. After establishing himself as the slowest deep threat in NFL history against the Colts, Boldin spent much of the AFC Championship Game abusing whichever Patriot was assigned to him in the slot. Carlos Rogers isn’t Marquice Cole, but just like the Ravens will look to take advantage of man coverage on the outside, when Boldin’s covered one-on-one inside, I suspect his physicality will again come into play.
15. Carlos Rogers
Boldin’s role in the slot is part of what gives Rogers a place here over his fellow corners. Chris Culliver has probably been the best 49er in coverage, but his spot at left corner comes in San Francisco’s nickel package. Against the Ravens’ base offense, that role goes to Rogers, and that side of the field seems to be the one Flacco prefers in taking his big shots. When Baltimore does line up with three receivers, it’ll be Rogers who has to deal with the red-hot Boldin.
14. Ray Lewis
It’s hard to quantify how much of this ranking is emotional and how much is actually based on football, but I think it’s become apparent that it isn’t always easy to separate the two. Lewis’s retirement ploy is likely to inspire aging veterans around the league to make similar heartfelt, pre-playoff announcements for the rest of time, mostly because there’s no denying that it’s played some part in Baltimore’s run. The Ravens have gone from average defense to decidedly better-than-average defense pretty quickly. I can only assume the deer antler juice will be flowing like water for the next few days.
13. Frank Gore
I guess Atlanta should get some credit for going into the NFC Championship Game with a defined strategy. After watching what Kaepernick did to the Packers, the Falcons decided that the one player they weren’t going to let gash them on the ground was Kaepernick. That was fine with the Niners. They just let Frank Gore do it instead.
Having a dangerous option at running back allows San Francisco to be equal-opportunity in how it distributes its carries. There’s no pressure on Kaepernick to keep the ball because of what Gore can do with it. Gore’s resurgence this year may have more to do with scheme and his offensive line that it does with him, but when given the opportunity, he’s done a lot with it.
12. Ray Rice
Although I still think Rice is one of the best backs in football, and that underusing him was what eventually got Cam Cameron shipped out of town, I also think his impact on this game isn’t what it might be against a different opponent. San Francisco’s speed at linebacker negates much of what Rice can do in the passing game, and the Niners’ ability to stop the run inside will likely limit Rice on the ground. The one area that Baltimore may be able to take advantage of is off the left side of the Niners’ defense. San Francisco wasn’t nearly as strong against runs to the outside as it was on runs between the tackles, and with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks beat up, Baltimore may be able to take advantage of its big bodies on the strong run blockers it has on that side of the line.
11. Marshal Yanda, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone
Like I mentioned earlier, Yanda and Iupati are two of the best players in this game, but the way I see it playing out, their impact may be diminished. Yanda is an absolute mauler in the run game, but it’s Baltimore’s pass protection that will be more important on Sunday. Iupati has been excellent all season, but his performance has dipped a bit in the playoffs, and I actually think it will be Boone and the Niners’ tackles who are asked to do more against the Ravens. Boone, an undrafted free agent who played at a Pro Bowl level all year, has been a welcome surprise for the Niners, and his ability to weave his way to backside linebackers is a big part of San Francisco’s success with its Pistol runs to the right side.
10. Torrey Smith
Boldin has had a great run in the playoffs, but Smith is still the receiver who matters most in Baltimore’s pass offense. His speed, combined with the Ravens’ system and Joe Flacco’s ability to throw the deep ball, is what Baltimore will rely on against a 49ers’ defense that plays a lot of man coverage on the outside. It’ll be up to Smith to make them pay for it.
9. Paul Kruger, Terrell Suggs
After seeing what Kaepernick did to Clay Matthews and John Abraham, I can only assume that Kruger and Suggs lost at least a little sleep this week. There’s no denying that the read option puts the most pressure on the edge defenders the offense leaves unblocked, but what makes Kruger and Suggs so important to the Ravens’ plans on Sunday isn’t what they do against those plays. It’s how they let those plays seep into the rest of the game.
Being the read key on plays from the Pistol doesn’t just create indecisiveness in the moment; it makes it unavoidable throughout the game. By keeping opposing edge rushers constantly on their toes, it actually slows them down when an opportunity to rush the passer does come along. Again, I think the Ravens will do everything they can in terms of mind-set and scheme to stop the 49ers on the ground. What will ultimately be the key for Baltimore’s outside linebackers is taking advantage of those plays in which they are allowed to rush the quarterback.
8. Anthony Davis, Joe Staley
The two Pro Bowl–caliber tackles get the nod over the two Pro Bowl–caliber guards mostly because of who has to block Haloti Ngata when the Niners go with their read option plays. In gashing the Falcons to the right out of the Pistol two weeks ago, the key block actually went to Anthony Davis, who was manned up on a defensive tackle and had no problem winning that individual battle. Ngata will line up to the offense’s strong side on Sunday, and as Alex Boone and Mike Iupati release inside to take care of scraping linebackers, it will be the two tackles who are responsible for the all-world defensive tackle.
7. Kelechi Osemele
I’m guessing that Osemele was really enjoying his move from right tackle to left guard until this week. The rookie will have to deal with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith in some capacity on Sunday, and how well he does will go a long way in determining whether Baltimore has a chance to win. Most of the time, it’ll be on Osemele to handle Justin Smith inside, but my guess is that Vic Fangio will be doing everything he can to get Aldon Smith going. That means lining him up over the guard, twisting him inside, and likely a few more wrinkles. Even with Justin Smith not 100 percent, this is the best right side of a defensive line in the NFL, and despite the success of Baltimore’s new-look offensive line, Osemele is still a 23-year-old Super Bowl starter who’s been playing his position for all of a month.
6. Aldon Smith
The past month and a half has gone a long way in figuring out exactly how much Justin Smith’s presence factors into Aldon Smith’s success, but even if Aldon has gone sackless since Week 14, he’s going to matter come Sunday. Baltimore’s passing game is reliant on deep throws, and whether those throws are successful depends a lot on whether Smith can get to Joe Flacco. Even though he never got to Matt Ryan two weeks ago, Smith looked better than he has in a while, and I have to assume that he’ll be lining up all over the place in an effort to get him going and get him to the quarterback.
5. Haloti Ngata
The success San Francisco’s had with their read option game has been impressive in the past two weeks, but Sunday, Ngata will provide a different sort of challenge. Leaving Staley and Anthony Davis alone on Ryan Pickett and Corey Peters still leaves San Francisco with the advantage. Against Ngata, that advantage shrinks — drastically. Ngata will be the most important player on the Ravens’ defense on Sunday by a long shot.
4. Joe Flacco
Being a Super Bowl starter probably comes with its share of pressure, but I’m pretty sure that if I were Joe Flacco, I’d be sleeping pretty well right now. Flacco has gotten himself paid over the past month, and it’s been thanks in large part to how well Baltimore has thrown the ball downfield. Flacco’s regular-season 15-0 interception ratio on deep throws has been matched by a 12-for-24, 416-yard, four-touchdown line on those same throws in these playoffs. He’s never going to be an accurate passer in the mold of a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees — and whether he can extend drives on intermediate throws will be big on Sunday — but few guys throw the deep ball better. With the way San Francisco plays its coverages, Baltimore will be served by embracing the man-to-man on the outside and relying on Flacco and Torrey Smith to make the Niners pay for it.
3. Bryant McKinnie
Now, although Flacco and Smith are the principal parts of that connection, it will be on McKinnie to start the chain reaction of what makes those throws possible. McKinnie has been excellent in pass protection since sliding in for Michael Oher at left tackle, but Sunday will provide the biggest test he’s gotten so far. Whether it’s Justin Smith or Aldon Smith on the outside, the strength of San Francisco’s defense lies in the right side of its defensive line, and keeping Flacco upright will be McKinnie’s responsibility.
2. Colin Kaepernick
I don’t know what else there is to say about Kaepernick. No one’s run the Pistol offense longer, and right now, no one can do it better. His ability as a runner, the mere threat of his ability as a runner, and his ability to throw the ball downfield are what’s allowed San Francisco’s offense to take on the dimensions they now have. It seems crazy now to think that the Kaepernick-Smith conversation was a conversation at all. He belongs right alongside Luck, Griffin, and Wilson when we talk about the future of quarterbacks in the NFL. If San Francisco does bring home its sixth championship in franchise history, almost no player will be more responsible than Kaepernick.
1. Justin Smith
Almost. On a defense littered with Pro Bowlers, Justin Smith stands alone. No one, not even Kaepernick, has a more profound effect on what happens on his side of the ball. In stopping both the run and the pass, Smith is the most important 49er. Limiting the Ravens’ downfield passing game will be more a product of Smith’s health than the play of San Francisco’s secondary. If he can occupy blockers and push the pocket, we may see some flashes of the Aldon Smith we got for the first 13 games of the regular season. Baltimore’s chances are already limited, but if the Ravens can’t keep Joe Flacco off the ground, those changes disappear entirely.