The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better matchup to finish off the week 16 slate on Christmas Day. Monday night’s showdown is a battle of one-seeds. We know that these teams have had similar success this season, but how do they match up on paper?
SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS. BAL SECONDARY
The Ravens defense is unquestionably one of the best in the league, and this unit is impacted by great players at every level. Their passing defense is second only to the Browns in EPA/Dropback allowed and third behind Cleveland and Kansas City in dropback success rate.
PFF also grades their coverage group as the third best in the league. Defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald is garnering head coaching buzz for the next cycle and for good reason. Especially in the secondary, MacDonald has deployed a number of defensive backs in versatile alignments and assignments that make it difficult for opposing offenses to attack down to down.
San Francisco will see plenty of nickel, dime, and three safety looks (more on those safeties in a bit). The alpha among the cornerbacks is Marlon Humphrey, a three-time Pro Bowler that, despite dealing with some injuries this season, still displays elite football intelligence at the position. But outside of Humphrey, Baltimore lacks any household names at corner and can be attacked.
Brandon Stephens, in his third year out of SMU, has locked down the second outside starting role, already eclipsing his career high in snaps. Veterans Ronald Darby and Rock-Ya Sin have played plenty due to injuries, but neither logged defensive time last week with Humphrey back in the lineup.
Journeyman Arthur Maulet splits time with safety Kyle Hamilton in the nickel role, and could be the weak link that Kyle Shanahan targets with his game-plan. Maulet has surrendered 16.2 yards per reception and an opposing QB passer rating of 92.8 when targeted. But perhaps more importantly - his 35.3 PFF tackling grade is bottom 20 among corners with at least 150 snaps.
SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs. BAL 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
This is closer than fans might think, and San Francisco is awarded the slightest advantage. As mentioned, Baltimore will use several DBs all over the field. Hamilton has been one of the main stars on this top-tier defense and will be headed to his first career pro bowl at season’s end.
His alignment snaps broken down: 266 at FS, 380 in the slot, 194 in the box. He possesses the size and speed to match up man-to-man with any tight end or running back. His 81.6 PFF grade is second on the team.
Geno Stone is the other starting safety and leads the team in interceptions (6). He has garnered the fourth-highest coverage grade at the position in the entire league, but has struggled mightily against the run and as a tackler.
When Hamilton moves to the nickel and Baltimore runs two deep safeties, Stone is joined by former Saint, Marcus Williams. Williams has a lot of the physical traits coveted at safety but has dealt with injuries most of the season and is listed as day-to-day this week.
The only teammate graded higher than Hamilton and Stone is Roquan Smith. All-Pro Fred is still the best off-ball linebacker in the NFL, but Smith has cemented himself squarely as the next best with a large gap to whoever is third on the list.
Smith is fourth in total tackles with a very low (5.1%) missed rate. He is also excellent against the pass, posting the third-most PBUs among linebackers and the fifth-highest PFF coverage grade.
The Ravens’ number two inside linebacker, Patrick Queen, is enjoying a career year thanks to Smith’s arrival. Through his first few seasons it looked like the former first-rounder was slow to diagnose the NFL game but is now in a role (without the green dot) that suits his aggressive style of play.
There is still some improvement to be made in coverage, and Shanahan likely knows that Queen represents a soft spot in this D. Smith and Hamilton make an incredible duo of defensive chess pieces, but it would be difficult to take them over a potential MVP candidate in CMC and an all-pro tight end like Kittle.
SF O LINE vs. BAL D LINE
Most metrics point to Baltimore being a tougher team against the pass than against the run, with their strength in the backend of the defense. Up front, they’re still formidable though, and get a lot out of underrated players, similar to the way the Niners’ Kris Kocurek has turned out career years by no-namers the last few years.
At edge, former first rounder Odafe Oweh has developed into a solid pass rusher, ranking 13th in ESPN’s win rate (21%), despite tallying only four sacks on the year. Fourth on ESPN’s ranking is Jadaveon Clowney (24%).
The former number one overall pick is still a productive player, and is enjoying his best pass rushing season since 2019 with Seattle, nabbing eight sacks and leading the team in pressures so far this year. Veteran Kyle Van Noy and fourth round rookie Tavius Robinson have been impactful as situational rushers as well.
The pleasant surprise of the Ravens season has been tackle Justin Madubuike, who leads all interior defensive linemen in sacks (13) and is third at the position in pressures (57). A former third rounder out of Texas A&M, Madubuike has logged at least half a sack in 11 straight games.
With the injuries and shuffling of offensive linemen in San Francisco, primarily along the interior, Madubuike could keep that streak alive. Starting nose tackle Michael Pierce has been a force against the run during his seven-year career, adding another challenge to the 49ers group
Baltimore deploys a healthy rotation on the d-line, so don’t be surprised to see plenty of substitutions with Travis Jones, Brent Urban, and Broderick Washington to keep the pass rush fresh while San Francisco has the ball.
It's Justin Madubuike time again! Against the Jaguars, he had a sack and six total pressures... from five different gaps. Playing as well as any DL in the game right now. pic.twitter.com/vpMn4vaqII— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 18, 2023
BAL O LINE vs. SF D LINE
Similar to the defensive line, Baltimore’s starting five on offense as a whole are better than the sum of their parts. Eight players have taken at least 100 blocking snaps upfront and eight offensive linemen logged playing time last week against Jacksonville. Despite all the scrambling amongst this unit, the Ravens rank third in pass block grade (PFF), 10th in pass block win rate (ESPN), seventh in run block grade, and fourth in run block win rate.
Former first rounder left tackle Ronnie Stanley has struggled with injuries most of his career and has entered the concussion protocol following their week 15 win over the Jags. If Stanley can’t go against San Francisco, Patrick Mekari will take his spot.
Mekari has given up five sacks in relief of both tackle spots this year and has graded out as Baltimore’s worst pass blocker. Right tackle Morgan Moses has been a steady presence and underrated player for a long time now and owns the highest overall grade in the OL room. But Moses left last week’s contest and had a DNP tag on Wednesday.
Daniel Faalele would take his spot if Mekari is in at LT, meaning Nick Bosa and company could be operating against two backups. Faalele is a mountain of a man but struggles with speed in pass pro.
Tyler Linderbaum is one of the best young centers in football, and he’s yet to give up a sack in 2023. Left guard John Simpson and right guard Kevin Zeitler have each been on the field for over 900 snaps but to different results. Simpson is the lowest graded starter on the line. Zeitler is the second-highest pass blocking guard in the league.
Neither have a stellar run blocking grade, but they might be facing San Francisco’s backup interior unit anyway, which struggled to contain a rushing attack with mobile quarterback play last week against Arizona. Still, with the edge play the Niners will get against the Ravens tackles, who aren’t at 100%, the advantage stays with SF.
BAL O COMBO vs. SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
Baltimore has two of their most dynamic playmakers out for this game. Tight End Mark Andrews, who has been Lamar Jackson’s favorite target for most of his career and leads the team in receiving touchdowns, is on IR with an ankle injury that required surgery. Second year pro Isaiah Likely has been a solid backup for Andrews and averages 12.3 yards per catch with 7.0 YAC per reception.
The other injury was to rookie running back Keaton Mitchell, an explosive but small back that averaged 8.4 yards per carry, second among all first year players. Mitchell tore his ACL last game and was placed on IR earlier this week. His big-play ability is a huge loss for a Ravens rushing attack devoid of game-changers to complement Jackson. Mitchell had as many 10+ yard carries as starter Gus Edwards in 116 fewer carries.
Edwards does lead the Ravens with 11 touchdowns but averages only 4.1 yards per rush. Neither he nor third stringer Justice Hill have been utilized heavily as pass-catchers and the focus for San Francisco’s linebacker unit will be stopping the NFL’s most productive rushing attack. It’s the play-making threat of Jackson that has this team at the top of the league’s rushing stats (162.3 yards per game on the ground). Baltimore runs more two-back personnel than all teams outside of Miami and San Francisco. The Ravens utilize pro-bowl fullback Patrick Ricard primarily as a blocker, where he excels in a number of different formations and rushing schemes.
BAL O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY
If we take this matchup at passing-value only, the Niners would come out on top. This is the best group of Ravens’ receivers in recent memory, but they don’t match up well against San Francisco’s physical starting cornerbacks.
But a unique quarterback like Lamar Jackson is a difference maker when viewing a contest at this level. Jackson is fifth in quarterback success rate. Similar to Brock Purdy and the Niners offense, Baltimore doesn’t throw much (second least behind San Francisco) but are efficient when they do look to pass.
They’re fourth in yards per attempt and Jackson is 13th in EPA per dropback, which includes scrambles.
A trio of first round picks are the primary pass catchers for Jackson. Rookie Zay Flowers was the third wideout off the board last April and has been a fantastic addition to the offense. He can win inside or outside and finds ways to create separation at only 5’9, 182 lbs. Flowers leads the Ravens in targets, catches, and yards, and is tied for second in touchdowns with Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham Jr. lacks the explosiveness he once exhibited as a rookie of the year winner and perennial pro bowler with the Giants. But he has carved out a role as an essential veteran presence and security blanket (especially with Andrews out) for Jackson in key passing situations. Rashod Bateman is the third wheel that hasn’t developed into the player Baltimore was expecting when they selected him with the 27th overall pick in 2021.
The former Minnesota Golden Gopher has been stunted by nagging injuries since joining the league. Bateman and veteran Nelson Agoholor complete the Ravens’ 15th ranked receiving corps (PFF).