To prep for Colin Kaepernick, Ravens’ D banking on scout-team offense
NEW ORLEANS — Terrell Suggs, ever the uproarious one, looked down from his podium perch over a mass of people during Super Bowl Media Day at the Superdome, picked out the 6-foot-3 Dennis Dixon, leaned into his microphone and yelled:
“Hey! What’d you run at the Combine?” — a question meant to uncover Dixon’s time in the 40-yard dash.
Dixon raised one arm up over the crowd and held up four fingers. He closed his fist, then did it again. 4.4 seconds.
In truth, Dixon sat out most Combine drills while rehabbing a knee injury, and his best time, 4.49, came way back in 2005 during an offseason conditioning program at Oregon. The point being, Dixon is a sensational athlete.
And he has given the Baltimore defense all it can handle during pre-Super Bowl XLVII practices, as he and Tyrod Taylor split the part of San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick during drills.
The Ravens faced Michael Vick way back in Week 2 of this season, then had to deal with the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III-led attack in Week 14. They lost both of those games, while allowing a combined 909 yards, and the 49ers’ offense is a unique entity unto itself with Colin Kaepernick at the helm.
So, since upsetting New England in the AFC title game, Baltimore’s defense has tried to learn the intricacies of the pistol-heavy, zone-read looks the 49ers will bring to the table Sunday.
To do that, the Ravens have asked Taylor and Dixon to mimic Kaepernick, practice-squadder Lonyae Miller to do his best Frank Gore impression and Anthony Allen to take on Delanie Walker’s H-back role.
“From my perspective, with Tyrod being Kaepernick and me being Frank Gore, it definitely was pretty tough to stop it,” Miller said. “Our defense really adjusted — we were giving them real good looks throughout the week.
“It’s an offense that if you don’t bottle it up fast, it can catch you.”
Dixon became the early poster child for Chip Kelly’s unique option attack, in 2007 during Kelly’s first season as offensive coordinator with Oregon. (Their joint success also has fueled rumors that Dixon will sign with the Philadelphia Eagles after Super Bowl Sunday.)
Taylor said he ran “some of” the option in college at Virginia Tech, while Allen played in Georgia Tech’s more traditional wishbone option attack.
No matter their backgrounds, the players’ opinions on San Francisco’s option offense were universal: It’s exciting to run … and poses problems for the opposing defense.
“It takes a lot of speed,” Allen said. “It takes a lot of getting used to.”
At the heart of it all is Kaepernick, the second-year sensation who has taken the league by storm since taking Alex Smith’s starting job midway through the regular season. Kaepernick threw for 1,814 yards and rushed for 415 in just seven starts prior to the playoffs; in the postseason, he’s posted a passer rating of 105.9 while breaking a QB rushing record against Green Bay (181 yards) and leading the 49ers back from a 17-0 deficit against the Falcons.
“He has tremendous confidence,” Dixon said. “One thing I take out of it is he’s very aggressive. Whatever he wants to do, run or throw, he’s confident.”
Said Taylor: “He’s definitely fast, can get outside the pocket — he’ll make outstanding plays and keep the defense on their toes. He has a strong arm. He’s been playing well since he’s been their starter.”
But were it only so simple for Baltimore as to corral Kaepernick. From a variety of looks, the 49ers also will get the ball into the hands of Gore and blazing speedster LaMichael James.
That’s if they don’t throw the football to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss or Vernon Davis.
“It’s a very tricky offense to stop, because with the zone read and with Kaepernick being such a threat, you can’t really key on one guy,” Miller said. “You can’t say Kaepernick is going to pull and run every down.
“It’s a very unpredictable offense. They run the same simple, effective schemes, but they put it in different formations. The holes were there (against the Baltimore defense in practice — well, some were there, some weren’t.”
When those holes might emerge for San Francisco on Sunday, as the Ravens’ faux 49ers learned in practice, will be contingent on Baltimore’s linebackers.
Allen pointed out how this particular offense has risen up from college ball to the NFL ranks.
Except, when a team runs the zone-read in college, Ray Lewis is not waiting to plug gaps between the tackles, and Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger are not charging off the edges. The Ravens are hoping those defensive playmakers can counter San Francisco’s home-run hitters.
“Ten out of 10 times (Lewis) was all over it, almost like he knew what the play call was before it was called,” said Miller, who added that Baltimore coach John Harbaugh implored him not to bounce plays outside, since Gore loves to run downhill. “(And) you ain’t getting on the edge of our defense, let’s nip that in the bud. Suggs is there, Kruger, they set the edges hard.”
Lewis said Wednesday that defenses had struggled against Kaepernick and the 49ers because they “just never communicated at all” — an issue Lewis does not expect the Ravens to have come Super Bowl Sunday.
Better communication, of course, is no guarantee of success. The 49ers have been executing their offense at such a high level that only an unrivaled effort from the Baltimore defense will put the clamps on Kaepernick.
If the Ravens succeed in that aim, though, they’ll owe a lot of credit to Taylor, Dixon, Miller and Allen for doing their best 49ers impersonations.
“We’re trying to find the biggest holes in our defense so our defense can work on it,” Allen said. “It’s a hard offense to try to learn in a week.”