Anyone who reads me regularly knows what I think of former Redskins safety Matt Bowen: The guy knows his stuff. There are few people I enjoy talking to more than Bowen, mainly because I learn a lot each time. If you want to learn more about football, his X’s and O’s breakdown for the National Football Post is required offseason reading.
Here’s what Bowen had to say about the Super Bowl:
Q: What are three things that jump out at you?
Matt Bowen: “The safeties for one. These guys will knock the hell out of you. They’re the most physical safeties in the NFL. I’d love to see the fine totals with Dashon Goldson and Bernard Pollard and Donte Whitner. I played with Donte. He came in as a hitter from Ohio State. They’re so physical; if I’m putting a team together these are the safeties I want. I know they might not be the best in coverage. Ed Reed is getting older. Dashon takes too many chances but if I’m the coach, this is what I want. When other teams turn on the film they say, ‘I don’t want to go across the middle on these guys.’ You want wide receivers to be scared a little bit. You want to dictate that through hitting. I understand range is big and the ability to open hips, but I’ll take a guy like [Florida International's] Jonathan Cyprien from the Senior Bowl. The first thing that stood out is that he came downhill in the inside run and put a helmet in there and talked trash.
“You want guys to play everything, who can play cover. If a guard pulls they’re not afraid to put their pads underneath him and stand him up. I’m interested to see if the refs let them play. That’ll be a big part of the game. … If a wide receiver ducks his head in the middle of the field they’ll take it off.
“The second thing I’m looking at is tight end. I think Dennis Pitta is a good player who isn’t talked about enough. They’d throw a parade for him in Chicago. He’s a good player. With Vernon Davis and Delani Walker… the tight end position is big. Both teams will play some two-man so that will put the linebackers on tight ends like when [Patrick] Willis had to match up against [Tony] Gonzalez in the red zone. So it’s a big chore for the linebackers. Willis and [NaVorro] Bowman can run with Pitta but Davis against the Ravens’ linebackers… [Dannell] Ellerbe can play it but Ray Lewis can’t play these guys. Paul Kruger is a matchup that favors the Niners.
“Then I want to see Bryant McKinnie against Aldon Smith. He hasn’t had a sack in like five games. He has to have a big game. In the NFC Championship Game Matt Ryan had too much time to throw. You have to pressure Flacco because I don’t know who will match up with Torrey Smith. I think Carlos Rogers will be on Anquan Boldin. He’s a physical player and Anquan is a 4.7 guy. He doesn’t run well but he’s so good on the release and in his routes because he’s so strong and he gets guys off him. But who will cover Torrey? If you give Flacco time to throw he’ll go down the field because they throw the deep ball a lot. Both defenses are good. San Francisco plays the run great. The Ravens will be OK. That option is something to keep an eye on.”
Q: How they adjust to the zone read will be a huge part of the game.
MB: “I agree. I wrote a piece on that about defenses playing [Robert Griffin III] and basically said defenses were playing scared against him. All the focus was on him and not in reading their keys. There was one play early in the game, a speed route against cover-2 with Santana Moss going across the field. They cleared out Josh Morgan and brought Santana. [All eyes] were in the backfield.
“It’s a different offense. The read option is the read option, but San Francisco does a great job of flipping personnel so much. They give you two tight end personnel and then come back out of a pro set so the next play they have the same personnel and then they’re in pistol and then to a pro set. Back and fort and back and forth until they get you. They find what works. Look what happened against Atlanta. They knew how to play the quarterback in the read option and they kept running it. If you don’t take the back, we’ll keep giving it to him. Then they figured out they couldn’t cover the tight end and then Davis showed up.
“Out of that pistol they ran wheel routes against Atlanta, a double post to take the corner and free safety out of it and then Davis running downfield by himself. They drop back out of the pistol. You have to prepare for so much. … Do you panic or read ghost keys?
“They also aligned out of position. If a tight end is out of a three-point stance and he blocks down it’s a run if he releases it’s a pass. Now he’s out of the backfield. That’s why the wheel route was a killer because it just looks different. All of a sudden your eyes are to the QB and the running back because the tight end is not where he’s supposed to be. When I played, there was definitely panic when the Eagles put TO in the backfield. They’d run the same play as they did with him on the line but when he’s in the backfield everyone panics because he’s not where he’s supposed to be. That pistol formation, NFL athletes are not used to seeing it. And if you’re a veteran guy who has played 10 years you didn’t see it in college either.”
Q: What do you think of Joe Flacco?
MB: “I think he’s having a great postseason. I don’t know where you slot him, but he’s thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions. If his team wins he should be standing at the bank Monday morning with his agent. He doesn’t get a lot of respect, but the reason why is public perception. When you talk about the Ravens you talk about defense. But Ed Reed has not had a great year and Ray has been hurt and can’t run like he used to. He’s not an impact player. They’ve had injuries in the secondary. They’re not as dominating a defense as they always have been. The focus shifts to the offense. People realize how talented Flacco is. It’s taken a long time, but he’ s played in a lot of playoff games and if they don’t drop a pass in the end zone they’re in the Super Bowl last year too. Flacco deserves the money he’ll get. If he wins the game maybe people will realize he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league. You’ve got to put him up there with guys like Big Ben.
Q: What about Baltimore’s run game?
MB: “That’s a tough matchup against the Ravens. This front seven is tough. The linebackers are great. Justin Smith, if healthy is an impact player. The Ravens’ line has been great. McKinnie is good. Marshall Yanda is a Pro Bowler. They have a very good line. Baltimore has to run the ball. That’s what I like about this game. All year the talk is how we have to throw to win and it’s a passing league. Everyone chucks the ball all over the place. These teams are here with smart quarterback play, good defense and running the football. There’s no Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees in this Super Bowl. Their teams weren’t good enough and they’re supposed to be the best in the world. It’s still a team game. You still have to run in certain game situations. The one thing with Ray Rice is watch out for the screen pass. This defense is fast and wants to get downhill real quick. That’s how you get big plays in the screen and draw. That stuff works against a fast defense. Rice is one of the best in the open field and he’s built like a bowling ball and has lateral ability and his awareness is very good. That’s tough on a safety. I’d also say they should get Ray on the outside with the crack toss, the outside stretch. Get Rice on the edge and have the safeties come downhill on run fits. When all the gaps move, that’s terrible for a safety because they don’t know where to fit anymore.”
Q: Who do you like?
MB: I like the Niners. I think about 23-16 or 23-17. I don’t see this being a 35-31 game. The Niners are the best team and I think [Jim] Harbaugh is the best coach in the NFL.