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Ravens are equipped to give the 49ers problems on both sides of the ball

The Ravens have the personnel and schemes to put their favored hosts in plenty of conflict on Christmas night.

NFL: DEC 17 Ravens at Jaguars Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The interconference matchup between the AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens and the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers in Week 15 has the makings of an epic clash. Many pundits believe this could be a potential Super Bowl preview. However, before either team earns the right for a rematch, they’ll firsts treat the nation to what might be the game of the year in a Christmas edition of Monday Night Football.

Even though both teams look like the cream of the crop in their respective divisions and conferences, the 49ers are widely favored and predicted to win by more than a field goal over the underdog Ravens.

It’s not hard to make an argument that San Francisco might indeed be the best team in the league because they have certainly playing like that since returning from their Week 9 bye. They have the longest active winning streak in the league at six in a row with a point differential of 207-74 during that span.

The 49ers possess several versatile and elite playmakers that can make life hell on their opponents. This list includes All-Pros like Deebo Samuels, George Kittle, Christian McCaffery, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, and Trent Williams, as well as Pro Bowlers Javon Hargrave and former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk. However, the Ravens have one of the most complete rosters that features a wealth of dynamic defenders and offensive playmakers. Paired with their diverse schemes, they present a unique challenge, unlike anything their upcoming foe has faced this year thus far.

San Francisco head coach and offensive play-calling savant Kyle Shanahan has an MVP-caliber quarterback surrounded by weapons that can attack any area of the field. Where they take advantage the most, though, is over the middle. When their opponents aren’t blowing coverages or taking bad angles, the 49ers mercilessly attack second and third-level defenders down the seams and in the deep-to-intermediate areas.

While most teams have shied away from investing in safety and linebacker positions, that’s where the Ravens have poured in most of their money and resources over the past two seasons. Their spine is the strength of their top-ranked defense and is headlined by All-Pro middle linebacker Roquan Smith, who is arguably the best player at his position, and second-year breakout star Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton is the ultimate modern defensive chess piece that unlocks everything they can do to disrupt their opponents’ game plans.

The team used their first-round pick in w0ww to stop Hamilton’s freefall out of the Top-10 and acquired Smith via trade at the midseason deadline last year. Then, they made him the highest-paid off-ball linebacker in the league before the postseason. They are also extremely stout in the trenches with another breakout star in defensive tackle Justin Madubuik, along with veteran outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy — who are also in the midst of career years.

Smith joins forces with Patrick Queen to form the league’s best linebacker tandem while Hamilton is part of the best safety trio in the league along with Marcus Williams and Geno Stone. Up front, Madubuike leads all interior defensive linemen in sacks (12) and is one more away from setting a new NFL record for most consecutive games with at least a half-sack.

Shanahan and Purdy will find it much more challenging to get the ball over the heads of Smith and Queen. Hamilton, Williams, and Stone have shown they can close windows quickly or even take away completely. Outside of Williams at left tackle, the 49ers’ offensive line isn’t much to write home about. They could struggle mightily in preventing Madubuike and second-year defensive tackle Travis Jones from blowing up plays in the backfield and generating consistent pressure up the middle.

As for one-on-one matchups at the skill positions, Hamilton is an elite hybrid nickel defender who can lock down Kittle, McCaffery, or whomever else lines up in the slot. He’s also an absolute game wreaker in the box near the line of scrimmage. He can come crashing off the edge to pressure the quarterback on a blitz or come screaming down the line with backside pursuit to make a tackle for loss.

It will be tough sledding for Samuels and fellow standout receiver Brandon Aiyuk on the perimeter. They’ll be going up against three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey, who is coming off a strong bounce-back game, and third-year breakout stud Brandon Stephens.

All of these pieces are stellar as individual players but as a unit under Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald, they are the best in the league. In just his second year at the helm, Macdonald has already established himself as a brilliant and well-respected wunderkind. He is a rising star in the coaching ranks, who many believe could get poached to become head coach elsewhere in the offseason. Macdonald has a strong ability to get the most of the talent at his disposal and set up all of his players in the best position to succeed. Whether it’s creative pressures or deceptive coverages, he’s very worthy adversary for Shanahan —who is much more experienced and highly venerated.

As potent as the 49ers’ offense has been this season, they haven’t exactly played a murder’s row of opposing defenses, especially when it comes to yards allowed per play of which the Ravens are ranked first (4.4). Of the units that San Francisco has gone up against, 11 of the 14 rank No. 20 or worse in yards per play allowed and they went 1-2 against those that rank No. 10 or better.

Flipping over to the offensive side of the ball for the Ravens and the defensive side of the ball for the 49ers, there’s no questioning that the home team will likely have the advantage on the edges. Given the recent inconsistent play of veteran tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses , Bosa — the reigning Defensive Player of the Year — and Pro Bowler Chase Young could be poised for a disruptive outing.

However, the Ravens have the league’s best-rushing attack that is spearheaded but no longer completely built around their unanimous MVP-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who is in strong contention for the honor again this year. Under first-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, the offense has been able to stay true to their dominant rushing roots that were established by his predecessor, Greg Roman, while also growing and modernizing the aerial attack.

While Jackson’s passing numbers aren’t gaudy, the strides and elite ability he has consistently put on tape as a passer —especially from the pocket — have been phenomenal. Monken puts him and the rest of the Ravens playmakers in positions to thrive. On top of that, he empowers them to take command of the offense. They’ve awarded him for giving them that opportunity to come up with incredible plays each week.

The Ravens upgraded their wide receiver depth chart this offseason. So, while 49ers’ veteran top cornerback Charvarius Ward can try to take away either Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers, or Rashod Bateman on a given play, he can’t be in three places at once. San Francisco’s other starting corners on their depth chart are solid but aren’t nearly as consistent. Sixth-year veteran nickel corner Isaiah Oliver has been especially susceptible to giving up plays through the air, having given up three touchdowns and allowing an opposing passer rating of 103.2.

Although they lost three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in Week 10, second-year pro Isaiah Likely has stepped up and performed exceptionally well. In the three games since he took over as the full-time starter, the 2022 fourth-rounder has averaged 4.67 catches and 64.33 receiving yards per game. In the past two seasons combined, Andrews averaged 4.72 catches and 55.6 receiving yards per game. Likely has brought a more dynamic and elusive element to the position while still providing the same reliable contested catch threat for Jackson in the passing game.

While the 49ers have one of the league’s top run defenses in terms of fewest total yards, yards per game, and rushing scores allowed, they are giving up the fifth-most yards per carry. Since they are accustomed to playing with a lead due to their potent offense, opposing teams are forced to abandon the run because they need to pass the ball to play catchup.

The Ravens were dealt a devastating blow on the injury front when undrafted rookie sparkplug Keaton Mitchell suffered a season-ending torn ACL last week. However, they still have talented ball carriers in veterans Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, and Melvin Gordon. Jackson is also being used more as a runner down the stretch with great effectiveness and efficiency. Edwards leads the team with a career-high 11 rushing touchdowns and Hill has set career-highs across the board despite seeing limited opportunities for most of the season.

An excellent way to help limit an elite pass rush and ease the burden on banged-up blockers is to not have them retreat and potentially get exposed in pass protection. Offensive linemen generally prefer run-blocking to pass-blocking because they are allowed to be the initiators of contact instead of the reactors. Unleashing their top-ranked rushing attack, which is averaging a league-high 163.8 yards per game and a second-best 5.0 yards per carry would help the Ravens by wearing down the 49ers’ defense and limit the possessions of their offense.