Changes on offense fueling Ravens, Niners in playoffs
The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers each made major and even controversial decisions on offense this year.
The Ravens booted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the season, replacing him with quarterbacks coach and former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
The 49ers, meanwhile, lost quarterback Alex Smith to a concussion against the St. Louis Rams back in Week 10. Then they stuck with his replacement, Colin Kaepernick, even after Smith was cleared to return.
In each case, the bold changes on offense have paid big dividends. Here's a look at how these decisions will impact the conference title games, as Baltimore visits New England and San Francisco heads to Atlanta.
Baltimore's big-play passing attack has been devastatingly effective down the stretch of the 2012 season, especially in the playoffs. And the New England Patriots defense may be perfectly vulnerable to that attack.
Credit offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell for quickly remaking the Baltimore offense into the tough, hard-nosed, run-first attack fans normally associate with the Ravens. He did it by bringing a touch of the old 1960s Vince Lombardi Packers to the Ravens since replacing Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator after Baltimore's Week 14 31-28 loss to Washington.
Lombardi's Packers were known for their devotion to old-school, meat-and-potatoes football that emphasized the run first. And, indeed, the Packers were consistently among the league leaders in rushing attempts.
But what made Lombardi's Pack a legendary winner is that the regular diet of body blows opened the passing lanes for Bart Starr, who exploited it with deadly precision. Starr got the ball down the field and skewered defenses with big plays better than any quarterback of his generation. Starr topped 8.0 yards per attempt in each of Green Bay's five championship seasons of the '60s. He led the NFL with an incredible 9.0 and 8.7 YPA, respectively, in Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning seasons of '66 and '67.
That plan is what Caldwell has asked the Ravens to follow.
With Cameron as offensive coordinator, the Ravens averaged only 26 rushing attempts per game and 35 passing attempts. Flacco's average of 7.2 yards per pass attempt under Cameron was merely mediocre.
Under the guidance of Caldwell, Baltimore's rushing attempts have skyrocketed to 36 per game -- 10 more than under Cameron. Flacco's average per pass attempt has skyrocketed, too, up an entire yard per attempt to an average of 8.2 on every throw.
The Ravens never ran the ball more than 37 times in a game with Cameron calling the shots. In the last four games, with Caldwell calling plays, they've pounded the ball 45, 46, 32 and 39 times last week at Denver (granted, with an entire overtime session-plus).
Cameron's offense ran the ball more than they passed it only twice in 13 games; Caldwell's offense has run the ball more than it passed in each of the last four games, averaging 40.5 attempts to just 31.5 rush attempts these most recent contests.
That could be an especially devastating combination against the Patriots. New England lives and dies with big plays on defense. They forced 30 turnovers this year out of the quarterback position alone, most in the NFL (adding another against Houston in the divisional playoffs).
However, the Pats were gashed for 7.7 YPA through the air this season (28th in the NFL), or 6.9 yards if we look at Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (27th), which accounts for the impact of sacks.
If Baltimore's offense is able to keep pace with the mighty Patriots and pull off the upset, you can be sure to see a high number of rushing attempts and a very high average per pass attempt out of Flacco.
The explosive Colin Kaepernick has had plenty of wow moments this year, but none more spectacular than his dual-threat skewering of the Green Bay Packers during San Francisco's 45-31 divisional-round victory. The second-year quarterback passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns while running for a quarterback-record 181 yards and two more scores.
He presents a deadly threat to the Atlanta Falcons, especially considering the porous state of their run defense. Right now, he is the best quarterback in football, at least if you measure all aspects of the position.
Traditional passer rating is highly useful but it doesn't tell the whole story. It's often called quarterback rating. But in fact, it's not a QB rating. It merely measures passing and nothing else. That doesn't help measure the effectiveness of Kaepernick and the new wave of dual threats in the NFL, including Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, among others.
Minus a tried-and-true measure that would account for the impact of the dual-threat quarterback, we created our own. It's called Real Quarterback Rating, and it measures all aspects of quarterback play: passing, plus rushing, sacks, fumbles and rushing touchdowns.
Here's the Real Quarterback Rating of each of the final four quarterbacks (regular season and postseason):
Colin Kaepernick -- 100.1
Tom Brady -- 96.3
Matt Ryan -- 93.3
Joe Flacco -- 82.6
Not only is Kaepernick the best of the final four, he has been the most effective quarterback in football this year. Griffin led the NFL with a 100.4 Real Quarterback Rating in the regular season, but then tumbled to 98.6 because of his injury-plagued effort against the Seahawks in the wild card round. That left Kaepernick as the only player in the NFL this year with a Real Quarterback Rating greater than 100.
Adding Kaepernick to the offense leaves the 49ers well poised to exploit Atlanta's most critical weakness: run defense.
The Falcons surrendered 123.2 yards per game (21st) in 2012 and were gashed for a brutal 4.8 yards per attempt (29th). They finished No. 25 on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index.
The 49ers, meanwhile, thrived on the ground, averaging 5.1 YPA, third in the NFL this year and ranking among the short list of teams in NFL history that topped five yards every time they ran the ball.
And as we saw against the Packers, that ground game is even more deadly with Kaepernick under center. He torched Green Bay with an average of 8.5 yards per pass attempt -- a good day for any quarterback -- but also ripped the Pack for an incredible 11.3 yards per rush. That dual-threat dynamism will be difficult for any team to deal with, as the Falcons may find out Sunday.