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2 areas where the 49ers have the biggest advantage against the Ravens

It all comes down to trust and injuries.

Baltimore Ravens v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

It’ll be a true Christmas special on Monday night as we’re treated to the two best teams in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens keep finding ways to win despite losing key contributors to injury.

Sometimes, you need luck on your side, and Baltimore has received that during the past couple of weeks. But they’ve also given valiant defensive efforts to be stingy enough when it matters. Turnovers have been key. Offensively, Lamar Jackson and company have managed to score at least 30 points in six of the last eight games.

Sound familiar?

The 49ers have left little to no doubt against their opponents since the bye. To put into perspective how dominant the Niners have been, oddsmakers are suggesting San Francisco is effectively a touchdown better than the second-best team in the NFL. But are they that good?

Injuries impacting instantly

Losing a tight end the caliber of Mark Andrews will hurt any offense. He’s the ultimate security blanket. Andrews had at least four receptions in every game from Week 2 through Week 9.

Most importantly, he’s a 6-foot-5 pass-catcher who, despite not playing since Week 11, ranks No. 18 in the NFL in red zone targets. Jackson leaned on Andrews because he trusted him when it was time to score.

The sky is the limit for tight end Isaiah Likely, as he’s had five catches, gone over 70 yards, and has scored a touchdown in each of the previous two games. The 49ers aren’t out of the woods when it comes to defending a talented tight end. But the chemistry isn’t the same because the repetition between Jackson and Likely isn’t anywhere near what it was with Andrews.

Many may scoff at the idea of an undrafted free agent running back meaning more to an offense than Andrews, but there’s no replacing a home run threat like Keaton Mitchell.

We saw the Cardinals move the ball against the 49ers with a couple of explosive runs that flipped the field. Mitchell only had 47 carries on the season, but 60 percent of his rushes went for 15 or more yards. You’d be hard-pressed to accomplish that in a video game.

For example, and it goes without saying that number would diminish with a higher volume, but Christian McCaffrey has the fifth-highest breakaway percentage in the league at 37 percent.

Baltimore now turns to Gus Edwards, a 238-pound back, Justice Hill, or Melvin Gordon, or hasn’t had a carry since Week 4. The obvious answer is leaning on Lamar’s legs more.

Which offense can you trust more?

Jackson has double-digit carries in three straight games. He’s also completed below 60 percent of his passes during that stretch. The numbers would suggest that running the ball more has impacted Jackson as a thrower. We can debate whether that’s true or not, but something is off with the Ravens’ offense.

No Andrews or Mitchell means more on Lamar’s plate. Their passing offense looks clunky. Something is off, and that something might be related to the loss of Andrews as Baltimore is working out their issues on the fly.

Can you say that you trust this version of the Ravens’ offense? Zay Flowers is the best perimeter threat on the Ravens. He was a full participant on Friday, but didn’t practice on Wednesday, was limited on Thursday, and was also out on Saturday.

Flowers has shown flashes this season that made him a first round pick. But he also doesn’t have a reception gaining more than 21 yards in six of his past seven games. Plus, Baltimore is also bottom-five in passing attempts this season.

Rashod Bateman and Odell Beckham Jr. are talented, but they haven’t been consistent and go long stretches of a game where they flat out disappear.

In a game that’ll come down to the pass catchers making plays, we’ve seen Baltimore drop the ball where it’s been the inverse outcome for the 49ers.

Finding the mark

The questions about Baltimore don’t exist for the home team, which is why many expect the 49ers to continue to look like the team to beat at Levi’s Stadium.

We have one data point this season where the 49ers didn’t score at least four touchdowns at home. That happened against a Bengals team without Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams. The 49ers also threw two interceptions, fumbled, and settled for a field goal in the red zone.

If this is a game where the first team to 28 wins, one offense has shown no issues to get there, while the other team has needed good fortune and luck.

In Baltimore’s defense, they can give the 49ers different looks pre- and post-snap the same way Cincinnati did. The Ravens scheme is more sound, and they have the schematic and talent edge over the Bengals.

We saw a glimpse of how the Ravens would deal with pre-snap motion against the Rams two weeks ago. The Rams ran the ball on the first five plays of the game. They gained at least ten yards on three of those carries.

Sean McVay was able to dictate the looks he’d see before the ball was snapped and wound up gashing the Ravens on the ground and moving the ball with relative ease all game.

It comes off as entitled to assume that the 49ers will roll out of bed and score 30 points, but the only time the Rams didn’t score came on drives when they either had a penalty or Matthew Stafford was stopped.

Baltimore forces you to beat them via death by a thousand cuts. Per Sports Info Solutions, only two teams in the NFL play a light box more than the Ravens, but Baltimore is also second in success rate when they have a light box. They believe you can’t march down the field for eight, nine, or ten play drives.

The Ravens have an embarrassment of riches personnel wise, which allows them to play with lighter boxes. Linebacker Roquan Smith, queen on the chessboard Kyle Hamilton, and deep safety Marcus Williams can each eliminate entire portions of the field.

That allows future Washington Commanders head coach and the current Ravens’ defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to get creative with his pressure and coverage packages. The snowball effect of having multiple shutdown defenders lets the Ravens flood specific areas with defenders and forcing low percentage throws down the field or you to target one of their best players.

Shanahan’s offense is predicated on players moving before the ball is snapped until he identifies the “mark,” all while manipulating the rules of the defense. This side of the ball comes down to whether Shanahan and Brock Purdy can find the mark before Baltimore forces Purdy into a mistake.

No Christmas gifts for the Ravens

We’re in Week 16 and the only concrete evidence we have on how to stop the 49ers from scoring was a three-game stretch when Purdy turned the ball over multiple times in a game. That’s it.

All seven of Purdy’s interceptions this season have happened when the offense needed to gain at least eight yards. Purdy is a risk-taker. He’s going to try and fit the ball into a tight window, or count on his receiver making a play. It’s been a gift more often than a curse. But those seven interceptions are tied for the seventh-most despite having the fifth-fewest dropbacks for quarterbacks with at least 250 passing attempts.

Winning on early downs will be imperative for Shanahan so they can be the ones forcing the Ravens hand, and not vice versa. When there aren’t interceptions or fumbles in the red zone, the Niners score, and usually a touchdown.

The good news is that the “hold your breath” moments on obvious passing downs are a thing of the past.

Using that same filter when offenses in the NFL have at least 8 yards to gain when they drop back to pass, Purdy has the second-highest completion percentage, his yards per attempt is nearly two yards higher than second place, and is throwing for a touchdown over one percent more of the time than second place. Oh, and his passer rating is 15 percentage points higher than second place.

This is all while being pressured 34 percent of the time in this oddly specific scenario. But while it’s one singular example, even in obvious passing situations, Purdy generates more points per play than any other quarterback.

As a defense, you’re playing roulette. You’re betting that your stud interior rusher Justin Madibuke can be disruptive enough, or you have the right disguise to force Brock into a mistake. If Purdy isn’t in the giving mood, the 49ers should outlast a Ravens offense that will need more than a week to figure out how to go score for score against the best offense in recent memory without two of their better playmakers.