Tale of the Tape: Big man’s game in Baltimore

After Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast, you’ll probably feel like a 300-pound defensive lineman. That’s actually quite appropriate, because if you tune in to watch “Thursday Night Football” on NFL Network, all of the best talent will be in the trenches for the 49ers and Ravens.

Since Ray Lewis has been in Baltimore, the Ravens have traditionally had the best combo of linebackers and linemen in football. Start with Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, and Haloti Ngata. But watching tape this season, our crew at “Playbook” has been consistently amazed by what we see out of the 49ers’ defense.

The Niners are a defensive coach’s dream -– not because of diversity of scheme, but with how their sheer effort makes drawing up pressure unnecessary.

Take, for example, Justin Smith, San Fran’s 3-4 DE. He bull-rushes on every play.

No speed rush around the corner, no spins inside, just Smith’s facemask in yours and his hands bench-pressing you back. Every. Single. Play.

Opposite of Smith is Ray McDonald, a presence in his own right, whose power versus the run or pass resets the line of scrimmage back a yard or two seconds after the snap. For that reason, the 49ers don’t really need to blitz to get pressure, which only benefits their secondary. Of their 25 sacks (which ties them for 13th in the league, behind the Vikings’ league-best 31), only eight have come through the blitz.

It all starts with Smith, McDonald and nose tackle/fullback-sensation Isaac Sopoaga, but then you see the Niners have two of the league’s best middle ‘backers,  NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Behind that line, they fill every gap versus the run. Ray Rice comes into this game knowing the 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 32 games (last time being the Packers’ Ryan Grant in 2009). San Fran hasn’t allowed a rushing TD this season, either.

Bowman and Willis, a rare duo of inside ‘backers who stay in on third down, cover just as much ground versus intermediate to short passes, too. Because we love the 49ers’ defense so much in this game, the wild card has to be Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Unlike the 49ers’ offense, Baltimore’s offense has a quick-strike component with Flacco and the speed of Torrey Smith.  However, you have to think San Fran will be prepared for a designed, down-the-field shot in between the 40-yard lines -– the “go zone,” as it’s known -– from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Nonetheless, if the Ravens’ offensive line is able to hold back the 49ers’ line -– and that’s a big if with the emergence of edge rushing rookie Aldon Smith –- and Flacco hits a couple bombs, that could put the onus on Alex Smith and San Fran’s pass game to play catch-up.

We fully expect the 49ers to try and match muscle with muscle, grinding with unbalanced “tackle over” and heavy run personnel (for example, bringing left tackle Joe Staley to right tackle Anthony Davis‘ side of the line) and taking Terrence “Mount” Cody and Ngata on. But, if the 49ers are forced to pass, Baltimore becomes a very tough defense to throw against because of its scheme-based pressure.

The Ravens scheme to move their weapon, Terrell Suggs, into positions for a one-on-one rush. They want to confuse opposing offensive lines with multiple bodies at the line of scrimmage pre-snap, making it difficult to decipher who they are bringing and who is dropping.

San Fran’s passing game, which depends off of the short to intermediate throw, could have trouble with a zone-blitzing team like the Ravens. If Baltimore calls up the right pressure, Smith could be under duress with passing lanes taken away -– not good for the intermediate to shorter passing game the 49ers like to use.

Whichever way this game plays out, this is going to be quite a feast to behold. A fine follow-up to a turkey dinner; surely enough hard-hitting to jolt you away after a solid dose of tryptophan.

Who’s going to win? In the end, we like the 49ers’ defense just a bit more than the Ravens’. Although Baltimore has offensive weapons to jump out on San Francisco early, potentially putting it in catch-up mode -– a place Alex Smith hasn’t been much –- and we like the potential of the Ravens’ offense on a given night, we’re going with the defense we trust.

‘Frisco has been consistent against the run and has created havoc with its pass rush. This should continue tonight.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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