About 14 months have passed since the Ravens and 49ers squared off at M&T Bank Stadium on Thanksgiving night in the inaugural Harbaugh Bowl.
The Ravens won that game, 16-6, as the two teams duked it out in a defensive slugfest.
Both teams have gone through their share of changes since then, and here’s a look at five changes since last year’s contest:
Kaepernick In, Smith Out
The most noticeable change with the 49ers is at quarterback, as Colin Kaepernick has taken the reigns of the offense from former starter Alex Smith. Kaepernick is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who allows the 49ers to run the pistol offense with a number of option plays and designed quarterback runs. He also has a big arm that can get the ball downfield and hit receivers in small windows. The second-year quarterback has provided a spark to the 49ers offense, and his versatility will be a tough test for the Ravens to handle.
Ray Lewis Factor
The biggest difference for the Ravens is at inside linebacker Albert McClellan started in place of Ray Lewis, who was out with a toe injury, that week. Now, the Ravens have their emotional leader back on the field for his final ride, and the team is playing inspired ball in the hope of capping off his career with a Lombardi Trophy. Lewis leads the NFL with 44 tackles this postseason, 18 more than the next closest defender. He has the defense playing at a high level, as they have knocked off Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks, shutting out the Patriots in the second half of the AFC championship. Lewis will be a force in his last NFL game, and these 49ers haven’t dealt with that before.
Caldwell Calling the Offensive Plays
Just like the 49ers have gone through a significant offensive change, the Ravens made a bold move of their own by moving Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator in place of Cam Cameron. The move has rejuvenated that Ravens offense in recent weeks, and quarterback Joe Flacco has responded by playing the best football of his career. He’s led the way for the Ravens in the playoffs, and has thrown for 853 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 114.7. All of those marks are the best in the NFL this postseason. In last year’s game against the 49ers, the Ravens went with a ground-and-pound approach and Flacco threw for just 161 yards and a touchdown, completing 16 of 23 attempts.
Explosive Special Teams
The Ravens have a key weapon this year that wasn’t on the field last year: wide receiver/return specialists Jacoby Jones. The Pro Bowler is electric with the ball in his hands, which he showed with three return touchdowns this year. He has shown a willingness to bring the ball out of the end zone from any distance on kickoff returns – he became the only player in NFL history to have two kickoff returns longer than 105 yards – and his breakaway speed makes him a key weapon in the battle for field position. The Ravens didn’t have a dynamic return game for much of last season, but Jones’ arrival has given the Ravens an X-factor.
Different Leader In Pass Rush
In last year’s game against the 49ers, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs carried the Ravens defense. He registered three sacks and a forced fumble on a night where the defense sacked Smith nine times. That nationally-televised game went a long way in winning Suggs the Defensive Player of the Year Award. But Suggs has been much quieter this season because of injuries, and the Ravens pass rush has been led by fellow outside linebacker Paul Kruger. He notched nine sacks during the regular season and has 2.5 in the playoffs. Kruger’s ability to keep Kaepernick in the pocket and force quick throws will be key for the Ravens defense.