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Ravens vs. 49ers Key Matchups: Protecting the edges will be of the utmost importance

This interconference heavyweight bout features key battles between specific players, units, and coaches.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Francisco 49ers Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens will be staying on the road in Week 16, where they’ll taking on the San Francisco 49ers in a Christmas edition of Monday Night Football. The Ravens are underdogs for just the second time this season in this interconference matchup between the top teams in their respective conferences. Many pundits believe that this a potential Super Bowl 58 preview and the winning quarterback of this game will most likely be the frontrunner for league MVP.

However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds. There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors in Week 16.

Ravens’ offensive tackles v. 49ers’ edge edge rushers

Baltimore has faced a murder’s row of elite edge pass rushers this season and that won’t change on Christmas, as they’ll face off with the tandem of Nick Bosa and Chase Young. The pair were college teammates at Ohio State, selected No. 2 overall in the draft in back-to-back years (2019, 2020) and were reunited when San Francisco acquired Young via trade at the midseason deadline. Since then, Bosa’s sack totals have exploded and the entire play of the defense has been elevated.

Ravens’ veteran bookend blockers, Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses, have been dealing one injury or another for most of the season. They struggled mightily at times in last week’s win against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ tandem of Josh Allen and Travon Walker. They’ll likely continue to rotate every couple of series with veteran utility lineman Patrick Mekari subbing in at left tackle and second-year pro Daniel Faalele filling on the right side.

Thankfully, they have the most elusive dual-threat quarterback in league history in Lamar Jackson, who can mask deficiencies and make up for mistakes by his blockers. Nevertheless, the game script could see the Ravens needing to score swiftly with little time and no timeouts at the end of either half. If so, they’ll need their offensive tackles to stand tall and give their quarterback enough time to get the ball out without being under consistent duress.

Mike Macdonald vs. Kyle Shanahan

As epic as the matchup between individual players will be, the most pivotal battle will be the chess match from the minds behind the two most diverse units in the league. The Ravens’ second-year defensive coordinator has matched wits with some of the sharpest offensive minds in the league this season but Shanahan is arguably the cream of the crop.

In many ways, their schemes mirror each other and follow a similar approach in the sense that they both have several playmakers with versatile skillsets that they put in the best possible position to succeed and can deploy in a multitude of ways to make life hell of the opposing team for 60 minutes. Shanahan has All-Pros Deebo Samuels, George Kittle, Christian McCaffery, and Trent Williams at his disposal. Not to be outgunned although to a lesser known degree, Macdonald has All-Pros Roquan Smith and Marlon Humphrey as well as three-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney and budding stars Justin Madubuike and Kyle Hamilton.

Both play callers like to try to dictate the rules of engagement and deceive players to create mismatches, expose and attack weakness, and put players in position to generate game-changing plays. It’ll be fun to see not only how they come out swinging early on, but also how they adjust to each others’ measures and countermeasures as the game goes on. A strong performance against an offense that ranks in the Top-3 of passing, rushing, and scoring would likely catapult Macdonald toward the top of head coaching candidates’ lists this offseason.

DB Kyle Hamilton v. 49ers’ slot pass catchers

The dynamic second-year defensive back has been the ultimate weapon and force multiplier in Macdonald’s scheme during his breakout season. With veteran free safety Marcus Williams taking part in practice as full participant on Friday, he appears on track to play in this huge game. That would free up the 2022 first-rounder to be deployed in the role he has been the most disruptive playing — as a hybrid nickel defender.

Hamilton already established himself as one of the best slot defenders down the stretch of last season as a rookie but has taken his game to an even more elite level this year. He’s proven capable of being a game wrecker near the line of scrimmage, as well as covering a lot of ground and covering both wideouts and tight ends. When he is not crashing off the edge to snuff out a run or pressuring Brock Purdy as a blitzer, expect to see Hamilton following whoever the 49ers have line up in the slot. That could be Kittle, Samuels, Brandon Aiyuk, or McCaffery, who runs routes like a receiver.

Ravens’ inside linebackers v. RB Christian McCaffery

The 49ers may go four wide and have two slot receivers with their star running back either lining up at one of those spots leaking out late often. If so, it will likely be Smith or fourth-year pro Patrick Queen’s responsibility to cover him. While Shanahan has had tremendous success this season by using his All-Pro running back in that manner, the Ravens boast arguably the best inside linebacker tandem — which will make that assignment tougher.

“Those are the two guys that jump off the tape,” Shanahan said. “They’re the most comparable to our guys that I’ve seen this year and for a couple years. To me, those two guys make the defense go. They’re big, they can run, and they can hit – not just because they’re big but because their intentions are that way. You can tell they like playing football. They’re very smart players too; they’re good in coverage, they’re two of the better zone droppers in the league and two of the better man-to-man guys also. They’re as good as it gets.”

Smith and Queen each have over 100 total tackles, five or more tackles for loss, four or more quarterback hits, four or more pass breakups, and a forced fumble this season. They are the physical tone setters of the defense who fly around from sideline to sideline smacking everything that moves. That will be McCaffery often in this game whether it’s on screens, handoffs, or in one-on-one coverage off the line.

QB Lamar Jackson v. 49ers’ inside linebackers

Just as Smith and Queen are tasked with limiting the focal point of the 49ers’ offense, it’ll be up to All-Pro Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw to do the same with the Ravens’ franchise quarterback. Jackson is a threat to make awe-inspiring plays with his arm and legs every time he touches the ball. He is in the conversation to earn his second MVP honor for that exact reason given.

Warner can do it all at an elite level but is especially exceptional in coverage. The sixth-year veteran is tied for the most interceptions among off-ball linebackers in the entire league with a team-leading four. He is a threat to make a play on the ball over the middle and down the seams. Warner can get great depth on his zone drops.

Greenlaw isn’t as dangerous in coverage but provides the physical tone-setting presence for the entire unit with his aggressive tackling, vicious hits, and tenacity as a run defender. He may be the player the 49ers have spy Jackson on passing downs to try and keep him from picking up first downs on scrambles.

TE Isaiah Likely v. 49ers’ safeties

The second-year pro has stepped up in the three games since the Ravens lost three-time Pro Bowler Mark Andrews. During that span, Likely leads the team with 14 catches on 19 targets for 193 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Last week’s win marked his second straight game of at least five catches, 70+ receiving yards, and a score. He’ll be looking to make it three in a row on Christmas but it won’t be easy.

Even though the 49ers lost All-Pro strong safety Talanoa Hufanga in Week 11 to a torn ACL, they’ve been getting good contributions from third-round rookie Ji’Ayir Brown. He recorded his first career interception and broke up three passes in the same game that his predecessor went down. In his first four career starts since then, he has logged 22 total tackles, another pick, and another pass breakup. At free safety, they have former Pro Bowler and 12th-year veteran Tashaun Gipson who is a steadying presence in the backend and helps limit big plays over middle and downfield.

DT Justin Madubuike v. 49ers’ interior offensive line

San Francisco has a future Hall of Famer protecting Brock Purdy’s blindside at left tackle in 10-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams. However, they are much more susceptible on the interior of their starting offensive line. The Ravens’ top-ranked pass rush is spearheaded by their fourth-year star, who could set a new NFL record for most consecutive games with at least a half-sack in this game.

Madubuike’s career-high 12 sacks led all interior defensive linemen. It’s just as big of a byproduct of his relentless effort as it is his down-to-down dominance in one-on-one situations.

Purdy is mobile enough to escape the pocket and make impressive throws on the run. Even so, Madubuike’s ability to close in on quarterbacks fast in the backfield before they can get the ball out has led to huge losses and the occasional intentional grounding.

The 49ers scheme makes life inherently easier on their offensive line to mask talent deficiencies, which they will have in relation to the Ravens in all but one spot. Madubuike takes snaps on edge occasionally as well. He could look to exploit the mismatch at right tackle with Colton McKivitz in addition to the interior with Jon Feliciano, Spencer Burford, and Jake Brendel.