Ken Whisenhunt breaks down Niners-Ravens matchup
NEW ORLEANS -- The Super Bowl pairing of San Francisco and Baltimore holds little surprise factor for Ken Whisenhunt. The newly named San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator, and former Arizona Cardinals head coach, witnessed first-hand the rise of the 49ers in the NFC West these past two years. And with his coaching history in the AFC North -- he was a Ravens tight end coach in 1997-98, and a Steelers offensive assistant from 2001-06 -- he's familiar with all things Baltimore as well.
We spoke with Whisenhunt late last week to get his impressions of this season's Super Bowl teams, and maybe no one was better positioned to assess the differences between the 49ers offense with Alex Smith at quarterback compared to the emerging Colin Kaepernick. Whisenhunt's Cardinals faced and lost to San Francisco this season with both Smith and Kaepernick at quarterback. In Week 8 on a Monday night in Arizona, Smith completed a ridiculous 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-3 49ers victory. Smith's 94.7 completion rate was the best in NFL history for a minimum of 15 attempts, but the league's record book requires 20 attempts, and Smith fell one shy on that front.
Of reports that Smith had lost his confidence prior to the game against the Cardinals, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh dismissed them after the game in memorable fashion, saying: "It's just a lot of gobble, gobble, turkey from jive turkey gobblers. That paints a pretty good picture.'' It was also a picture of Smith's last full game as the Niners' starting quarterback as a concussion suffered in his next game opened the door for Kaepernick to take over under center.
Then, in the Week 17 rematch, with the NFC West title and a first-round bye on the line, San Francisco downed Arizona 27-13 at Candlestick Park, overcoming a slow start by Kaepernick and Co. in the first quarter, when the Cardinals out-gained the 49ers 129-15 and held them without a first down. But San Francisco more than made up for it in the game's final three quarters, with Kaepernick finishing with a career-best 276 yards passing and two touchdowns, both to receiver Michael Crabtree, who posted eight catches for a career-high 172 yards and those two scores.
As it turns out, that final-week loss to the 49ers was the last game of Whisenhunt's six-year tenure with the Cardinals, and he was dismissed by Arizona shortly thereafter. Now working back in the AFC, Whisenhunt joined the staff of new Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, the former Broncos offensive coordinator whose top-seeded Denver team was upset by Baltimore in double overtime in the AFC Divisional round playoffs.
On to Whisenhunt's breakdown ...
How different is the 49ers offense with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback compared to the Alex Smith version you saw in midseason?
"He definitely adds a different element to that offense. His ability to run the ball forces you to defend that part of his game. It's something extra you have to work on. In order to compensate for his ability to run with the ball, it makes you play some single coverage, and define your coverages a little bit better.
"They have some players outside, whether it's the tight end [Vernon Davis], or their receivers [Crabtree and Randy Moss], who are really good players. So they mix it up well, whether it's a run or play-action, they force you to do a number of things. Essentially what they're trying to do is get you in one-on-one coverage and beat you that way. And they've been very successful with that."
Is anyone taking the read-option offense, or the pistol-formation offense, as far as San Francisco is taking it these days? Does that make Kaepernick tougher to prepare for than even a Robert Griffin III, a Cam Newton or a Russell Wilson?
"Well, the first thing you've got to start with is they've got a very good football team. They've got a lot of No. 1 draft picks on that offensive line, and they've got outstanding running backs, a good tight end and a top pick at receiver. And that helps. They've been successful even if it was just running the base offense with Alex Smith, or doing this offense with Kaepernick. You play a number of teams during the year that can do similar things like this, but the ability to do it all the time, like the 49ers can, is something that's a little bit different.
"It's not too dissimilar from having to play against the Wildcat formation from the standpoint of the runs that you face. But what's problematic is Kaepernick's ability to throw the football, and then when the pass patterns break down, his ability to run with the football. So it really becomes similar to what Cam Newton did his first year. It's something you have to account for and something not a lot of teams have seen a big dose of. So in preparing for it, you're trying to figure out ways to account for all the options in the run game, but still you've got to hold up in the pass game.
"And then, if for some reason you cover all the guys and he gets out of the pocket, he can do some serious damage with his legs. So there's a lot of elements to it that makes it difficult. I don't know if it's necessarily fair to say that nobody's ever done what they're doing, but I think maybe it's that they're doing it as consistently as they are. They're just a very well-balanced offense right now."
How do you view this matchup when it comes to San Francisco's ability to be so versatile on offense against what Baltimore does well on defense?
"I think it's going to be a good matchup because defensively, in the secondary, the Ravens have played very well, especially in the playoffs. I think they can cover their guys one-on-one, which will allow them to do some things defensively to account for the run. It's really going to come down to their ability to win the one-on-one matchups in the pass rush, and to be able to tackle Kaepernick when they get the chance.
"Baltimore has got some good pass rushers, and some beef up front, which will help them match up against San Francisco's big offensive line, and they're able, with their cornerbacks and safeties, to cover one-on-one. That doesn't mean San Francisco's guys aren't going to win, but as far as being able to match up and run their scheme, the Ravens have done that. They're not afraid to play man coverage and bring an extra guy to rush the passer, and they've been able to win with some of those pass rushes."
We saw in the 49ers' playoff win against the Packers how Green Bay's defense struggled with its gap control and containment against Kaepernick. How do you think Baltimore's defense will fare on that front, being disciplined and not over-committing in the read-option game?
"The Ravens have got some good players who have played that defense for a number of years, so they understand the concepts of hitting their gaps and being in the right spot. They've been a good defense for what seems like forever. You still have to execute, you still have to win, but they've been able to do that. They've been able to play man coverage, get the extra guy in the box to help with the run game. And that's what it's going to take.
"Green Bay, had a couple gap miss-fits in the Niners game, and they got torched because of it. The 49ers made them pay. I think now after the Ravens have seen that, and had a chance to work on it -- work against some of those looks -- it'll help them. Even though it's very hard to simulate that offense in practice, it'll help them to have seen it.
"Baltimore has done a good job of fitting up against a number of different offenses over the years, and they fit up well against the Patriots [in the AFC title game]. They made some plays defensively. So even though this is a different style of offense, Baltimore has done a good job of being able to adapt and use its personnel to matchup with different teams.''
You've been to the Super Bowl both as an offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh ('05 season) and as a head coach in Arizona ('08). From what you've seen of Kaepernick so far, how do you think he'll handle the big stage and the circus atmosphere that will prevail here in New Orleans?
"The pressure doesn't seem to have affected him much in the playoffs. They had to make a strong push at the end of the year to win the division and get the bye, and they did that, and it didn't ruffle him. He's had two big playoff games and played well, and he went into Atlanta in a very tough atmosphere and played well there. That makes you think he'll handle it fine.
"The 49ers have got veteran players who have been there a long time, and they're good, solid players. They're well-coached, and Jim Harbaugh does a great job of getting his guys focused. I'm sure Kaepernick will be prepared. I don't think the game will be too big for him. And remember, he's a second-year player. He's not a rookie. He's been around a little, and he was in the championship game last year. He's done the preparation, and the having the bye thing, and he's gone through all that. Even though he wasn't starting, he's seen that and that does help."
What's your sense of Baltimore's offense in terms of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith against the 49ers' secondary? Which one will be more pivotal on game day?
"[Former Cardinals receiver] Anquan Boldin has made so many plays in the playoffs, and so many big catches. If you put it in his direction, he's going to come down with the ball, and that's what you have to do against the 49ers. One of the things that's so difficult against San Francisco is that when you play that defense, a lot of your catches are contested. Their linebackers and defensive backs do a good job of being around the ball and they're physical. So you have to make those catches, and Anquan has done a great job with that over the years.
"Torrey Smith has made some contested catches down the field, too, and he's got that speed element, so you have to respect that. But what San Francisco does well as a defense is make you work to make those plays. But both Anquan and Torrey Smith have done a good job of making those plays, so they'll be as prepared as anybody to do that against the 49ers.''
Joe Flacco is a first-time Super Bowl quarterback as well, but he seems unflappable in any setting. Can you see the game's magnitude getting to him at all, or will he continue the roll he's been on, with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in the playoffs?
"Just look at what he did [against the Patriots], and look at how he played in the championship game last year. He made the throw (to Lee Evans in the end zone) and very easily could have won that game and gone to the Super Bowl. He's played in a very tough division against outstanding defenses for a long time now, and like you said, it doesn't seem to affect him. He obviously has a lot of confidence right now, and he made some tremendous throws in the last few games that I've watched.
"I think he'll be prepared, as will Ray Lewis. He is not going to let that team be unprepared. They have a lot of great leadership on that team and they're well-coached too. John Harbaugh does a fantastic job. I think both teams will be very well prepared for this game, and in the case of Flacco, I'm sure this game won't be too big for him.''
As a head coach in this league, what did you think of the big gambles both teams took late in the season, with the mid-November quarterback change in San Francisco and the early December firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Baltimore?
"You've got to make those decisions on what you think is right for your team, and you'd have to say they've both worked out beautifully, so it's hard to argue with them. I don't know what went into those decisions, but they're always great decisions when they work out the way these have. You've got to give credit to both Harbaughs, for having the conviction in what they felt gave them the best chance to win. They knew their teams, and knew what both needed.
"Alex Smith was playing so well for them. He played great against us in that Monday night game when they beat us. He was 18 of 19 or something crazy like that. I wasn't in practice and can't see what was going on there, but you knew Kaepernick must have great talent to give Jim Harbaugh the confidence to sit Alex Smith down, the way he was playing. Both moves were risky, but they've turned out well. That's not debatable."