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Why the Ravens defense might be the 49ers’ toughest challenge this season

The 49ers have themselves a tough challenge on their hands in Week 16.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are set to face off against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 as both teams are looking to improve their 11-3 records, which are tied for the best in the NFL.

San Francisco is currently riding a six-game winning streak, most recently defeating the Arizona Cardinals 45-29 in their strongest offensive performance of the season.

On the other hand, Baltimore is riding a four-game winning streak, while also being winners in eight of their last nine games.

In what could be a preview of a potential Super Bowl matchup, both of these teams will look to inch closer in clinching the No. 1 overall seed in their respective conferences with a win.

For the 49ers, their offense has been rolling at an extremely high pace, as they’ve outscored opponents 207-94 over their six-game winning streak.

However, the Ravens defense could be the toughest challenge that San Francisco has faced to date, presenting some potential issues as the 49ers look to win on Monday night.

Entering the matchup, Baltimore and San Francisco are tied for first in the NFL with 339 pressures on the season, according to PFF.

Baltimore has found different ways to pressure the quarterback, as defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald has varied his blitzing approach, although the Ravens have blitzed at over a 31 percent rate in all but two games this season, according to CBS’s Jared Dublin.

Still, they’ve found ways to get home with just four pass-rushers, despite not necessarily having a star, thanks to good disguises, but more importantly, strong coverage.

Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike leads the way with 12 sacks, while outside linebackers Jadaveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have recorded seven and six sacks, respectively.

When watching the film this week, that especially stood out to head coach Kyle Shanahan, who saw that the film study matched the elite numbers.

“You look at, the numbers are usually the first thing you see and you see how great their numbers are,” Shanahan said about the Ravens defense. “Then you turn on the tape and it looks just like their numbers. They’re really good against the run, really good against the pass, extremely sound coverages. They know how to get after it with pressures. They know how to get after it with front four. So, a really good defense.”

Not only do the Ravens disguise things up front, but they experiment with a ton of change on the backend as well, as all three of their top safeties, Marcus Williams, Geno Stone, and Kyle Hamilton have played at least 10 percent of their snaps in the box and in the slot.

Hamilton has been the most versatile, seeing 42.3 percent of his snaps from the slot, 29.9 percent as a free safety, 22.2 percent in the box, and 5.6 percent as a part of the defensive front.

That versatility was apparent from his college film and head coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged how seamless his transition has been to the Ravens defense.

“Just knowing the talent coming out of college and now watching him in their scheme and just seeing how good of a football player he is,” Shanahan said about Hamilton. “Anytime you’re that long, and you can run gives you a bunch of advantages. But he also fits into their mentality with how physical he plays and has the size to do a lot of things, but also has the feet and length to cover.”

Not only do the Ravens have the ability to get home with pressure and possess strong coverage in the secondary, but they also have an elite linebacker duo of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen to fill out their defense.

When breaking down the Ravens defense this week, head coach Kyle Shanahan compared the Ravens’ duo to the 49ers’ duo of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, noting that Smith and Queen are the two most similar to San Francisco’s linebackers.

“Similar. I think those are the two guys who jump off the tape and I think they’re the most comparable to our guys that I’ve seen this year and a couple years,” Shanahan said about Smith and Queen.

“To me, those two guys make the defense go. They’re big. They can run and they can hit and not just because they’re big because their intentions are that way. You can tell they like playing football. They’re very smart players too. They’re good in coverage. They’re two of the better zone droppers in the league and two of the better man-to-man guys also. So, they’re as good as it gets.”

The 49ers have been able to employ different coverages due to the space their linebackers are able to cover, making it tougher for opposing offenses to find their way through the air, especially when dealing with San Francisco’s pass rush.

But now, the 49ers have the tables turned, as they’ll be the ones also facing a tough defense with good linebackers in space.

“[It’s difficult to face two elite linebackers like Smith and Queen because] just how much room they can cover,” Shanahan said. “That’s what allows them to be so good in zone, just how good those guys are on the inside, how much field they can take between the numbers, takes the pressure off their corners, who can stay on top and take away the explosives.”

“To me, that’s one of the reasons they lead the league in sacks because of how good their coverage is with a bunch of good guys up front. It just allows them to do what they want.”

The 49ers will have their hands full on Monday Night when they host the Ravens, as they’ll likely be facing their toughest defense of the season.

But, San Francisco also possesses one of the most explosive offenses in the league, setting up for an intriguing matchup between two Super Bowl-hopeful teams.