There’s a foe other than just the San Francisco 49ers’ top-ranked defense that will threaten to put the brakes on Baltimore’s runaway train offense this Sunday.
Mother Nature is bringing rain to Baltimore (100 percent chance according to the latest projections) and will make it harder on the Ravens’ all-important ball handling in Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens offense has confused its opponents so well this season that former Ravens turned Rams safety Eric Weddle – a person with some first-hand knowledge of the offense – told reporters after Monday night’s blowout that even he didn’t know where the ball was half the time.
Some of that is a credit to the Ravens’ ball handling. Quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have done an excellent job of selling fakes not only with pre-snap motions, but after the snap with who they hand it off to (or don’t).
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said the Ravens put an "old-school emphasis" on the details involved with ball handling, and that it's "astronomically better" than it was a year ago. Rain makes it more difficult, however. Thus, Baltimore practiced with wet balls on Thursday.
“Our equipment staff did a great job of soaking those things pretty good. So, we got some really good work with that,” Roman said. "Really, it comes down to being great with the ball-handling. That’s where you really [see rain] impact the game.”
The Ravens played in a rain-soaked game in Seattle earlier this season and still scored 23 points on offense and didn’t have any fumbles. Jackson completed a season-low 45 percent of his passes, but 14 times for 116 yards and a decisive touchdown.
The 49ers won in a downpour in Washington earlier this season, but it was an ugly 9-0 game. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had his toughest game of the season, going 12 of 21 for 151 yards and an interception.
San Francisco Head Coach Kyle Shanahan was hoping to get clear weather in Baltimore.
“We’ll see how it is on Sunday, and how that could affect both teams, but I usually don’t like [the rain] or want it as much because I feel we’re a team that’s predicated on speed, and I think rain always slows you down a little bit,” Shanahan said on KNBR. “I don’t mind too much their quarterback slowing down, though.
"I know they’re going to run the ball, whether it’s a monsoon or whether it’s 90 degrees out and not raining at all. I don’t think it’s going to change what they do, but you’ve got to sit there, and watch, and see if it makes them better or worse. Then you’ve got to adjust accordingly."
Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said he isn't really worried about the rain impacting Sunday’s game.
“Rain or shine, you’re going to play. It’s not always the most fun to play in the rain, I’ll tell you that,” Boyle said. “Maybe it helps. People say it does because we run the ball a lot. I just think we have such a good team and good players, it doesn’t really matter what the weather is out there.”
‘Juice’ Is Coming Back to Baltimore
Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters has been given the nickname “Juiceman” by running back Mark Ingram II, but the original “Juice” is coming back to Baltimore wearing red.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk spent the first four years of his career in Baltimore after being drafted by the team in the fourth round in 2013. It’s where he built his NFL reputation as a versatile weapon and went to a Pro Bowl in 2016.
The following offseason, Juszczyk signed a four-year, $21 million contract with the 49ers that was unheard of for fullbacks at the time.
Since then, he’s gone to two more Pro Bowls and become a featured part of the 49ers’ offense. He was spotlighted on Monday Night Football earlier this season when the 49ers took on the Browns.
“I couldn't be happier with how things turned out," Juszczyk said this week. "Honestly, I'm just more genuinely happy here. I like my role. I like the work environment better here.
"And it's been really cool to build from the ground up, whereas when I went to Baltimore, they'd just won a Super Bowl. So I was just adding on to what was already there. Here, I was part of creating that culture, starting from the ground up.”
The 49ers’ rushing offense ranks No. 2 in the NFL behind Baltimore. Juszczyk can also be a problem as a receiver, and caught seven passes for 63 yards two weeks ago. Asked for his opinion of the 49ers’ rushing attack, Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale started with Juszczyk.
“Just how versatile ‘Juice’ is and the run game,” Martindale said. “You can get all kinds of different runs. They do a great job of scheming up runs. I think that’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The Ravens and 49ers’ offenses attack in different ways, but they’re similar in how versatile they can be because of certain players.
“I think what makes them so unique is they’re able to be very successful with putting a fullback in the game,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
“I expect him to do his job and us do our job,” added outside linebacker Matthew Judon. “He’s a fullback. Whatever he has to do, he should do it to the best of his ability.”
Key to Stopping 49ers Starts With Their Run Game
With the 49ers running the ball so effectively this season (145.6 yards per game), that’s where the Ravens defense will have its attention first and foremost.
The 49ers roll a trio of running backs. Matt Breida leads the way with 542 rushing yards (5.0 per carry), Tevin Coleman has 448 rushing yards (six touchdowns) and Raheem Mostert has 393 yards.
That has taken some of the pressure off quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who struggled some earlier in the year but has been on a roll lately with 11 touchdowns to three interceptions over his past four games.
“I think he’s solid,” safety Earl Thomas said of Garoppolo. “But I’d rather stop the run game like last week and see if he can beat us in the passing game. I respect his game, but I still like our chances.”
“They’ve run the ball so successfully. There’s only so much you can limit them running the ball,” Humphrey added. “But when that can’t be their go-to, you really have to be good on the outside with the corners. So, me and the secondary need to be on our game and stop their guys.”