Mark Humphrey / AP
Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 | 2:15 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS — The elusive presence of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick figures to be a unique challenge for the Ravens defense today.
Should they fail to contain the 49ers’ unpredictable read-option pistol offense at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Super Bowl could prove just as difficult as earlier games against mobile signal-callers.
The Ravens lost twice this season to teams manned by athletic quarterbacks, falling to the Philadelphia Eagles (Michael Vick) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III). In those losses, the Ravens allowed a combined 906 yards of total offense.
“If we get a chance to hit him, we want to hit him,” Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “In Baltimore, we don’t roll that way. We’re going to hit you. He’s basically a running back who can throw the ball very well. You look at Robert Griffin III, you look at Kaepernick, and they’re very special talents.
“They’re guys who can kill you with both their arm and their legs. It goes back to being smart as a defense. Everyone can’t try to do everyone else’s jobs. If you do that, they’re going to find an opening.”
The keys to stopping the free-wheeling Kaepernick are rooted in dedication to assignment football: containing the halfback dive and the quarterback option keeper, and accounting for the pitch to the halfback, as well as a full-scale passing game.
Kaepernick, a strong-armed 6-foot-4, 230-pounder reminiscent of former Eagles and UNLV quarterback Randall Cunningham, has the ability to dash away from even the fastest defenders.
That could mean trouble for the Ravens. They allowed Vick to pile up 371 passing yards and a touchdown run during a 24-23 loss in which he was intercepted twice.
They also faltered against the Redskins during a 31-28 overtime loss, as Griffin completed 15 of 26 passes for 242 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 102.4 quarterback rating.
In the playoffs, Kaepernick has been electric. In two games, he has completed 33 of 52 passes for 496 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, for a 105.9 quarterback rating, while rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns.
“They are doing a good job with it,” said Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis, whose final NFL game will be spent chasing Kaepernick. “When you do watch the film, a lot of people who played against them just never communicated at all. I believe that’s one of the advantages of what we have as a defense.
“We do a job of communicating real very well, whether you have the dive, whether you have the quarterback. How are you going to play this? How are you going to play that? If you watch the film, you can tell that a lot of people played against the read-option just played as individuals.”
The best thing the Ravens did against Griffin was hit him often. He was sacked three times in the Dec. 9 game at FedEx Field, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata generated considerable inside pressure to disrupt the Redskins’ option plays. He also injured Griffin’s knee, forcing him out of the game.
“They’re like a Redskins team,” Ngata said. “They have a mobile quarterback that can run and throw the ball. They are similar that way. They run option plays. They kind of remind you of a Washington Redskins team.
“It’s rough. We have to try to cover all our bases because you have to worry about the running back, but the quarterback can also run or throw the ball at any time. So it’s going to be tough to do it all the time. If we communicate well through all those plays, we’ll be fine.”
Now the Ravens face a matchup arguably as tough or tougher. In the regular season, the 2011 second-round draft pick from UNR completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions after taking over for an injured Alex Smith.
“Colin Kaepernick has given them a more explosive nature that they didn’t have before,” former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said. “That makes them even more dangerous. The pistol has created an outsized dilemma for the defense, and it’s a pretty simple wrinkle for offense. That’s perfect for offensive football because you want defenses to be all atwitter about something that you can run your whole offense from.
“So that’s why the storyline for this year’s championship run has been the pistol, because defenses as a unit, they look foolish. It’s appropriate that a team that has really embraced it as a wrinkle is in the Super Bowl, with a young quarterback. I think that young, mobile quarterbacks will be more valuable now rather than in the past and maybe becomes the prototype.”
What separates Kaepernick are his athleticism and strength. He rushed for 415 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.
Now, Kaepernick is bracing for some new wrinkles from the Ravens’ defense.
“Coordinators are always going to figure out different ways to stop different offenses,” Kaepernick said. “It’s just another offense that they are going to try and stop.”
Running with Kaepernick could be tough for Lewis, whose range has declined, and free safety Ed Reed.
Kaepernick had a 56-yard touchdown run against the Packers, the longest run by a 49ers quarterback in franchise history.
“It freezes them a little bit,” Kaepernick said of his running capabilities. “It gives you a little bit more time. If it’s just a split-second, that’s an advantage for the offense.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is convinced that the pistol offense, which originated at UNR under former coach Chris Ault, is no passing fad.
“I think it will have staying power in the league, the pistol read-option,” Harbaugh said. “The beauty of it is and part of the genius of it is it’s such a simple idea. You can run your whole offense on it. You aren’t limited to an option-type attack out of it. Not just the entire run game but the entire pass game, as well.
“The backs get position to protect. You can run all your drop-back stuff, you can run power-run game inside and outside, and you can run read-option, triple-option. So it’s just a very versatile-type offense and it forces you to defend a lot of different elements of the offensive attack.”
What the Ravens hope to do against Kaepernick is ensure that every possible running angle is accounted for and that defenders maintain outside containment.
That involves defensive ends and outside linebackers remaining under control and in a sound football position whenever Kaepernick tries to scoot outside of the pocket.
“It starts up front trying to stop the run, and make sure you have all the aspects of the option of zone-read down,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s really the quarterback, because he is the guy who makes the decisions.
“You have to be fundamentally sound. You have to know what your assignment is and be on the same page.”
Will athletes like Kaepernick become the norm under center?
“I wouldn’t call it a new breed of quarterbacks,” Reed said. “We’ve seen guys like Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick. When Michael Vick came into the league, everyone said it was a new breed. He definitely is a problem on the field because he’s a good quarterback and a good athlete.”