NEW ORLEANS >>Fear the dreadlocks, San Francisco.
Torrey Smith just might be the difference in a Super Bowl that will hinge on the 49ers’ ability to prevent the Baltimore Ravens from scoring with the long ball.
You might remember Smith from that playoff game in Denver on Jan. 12. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey sure does. Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl star, watched the dreadlocks flapping from the back of Smith’s helmet as he chased the speedy wide receiver into the end zone on touchdown catches of 59 and 32 yards.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Baltimore forced overtime in that game on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left.
The Ravens have 17 pass completions of at least 40 yards this season, six of them involving Smith. Sometimes, Smith runs deep just to free up wideout Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta or running back Ray Rice underneath, leaving Flacco a variety of viable targets.
“It all depends,” said Smith, the speedy receiver from Maryland. “It’s not like they say, ‘Hey Torrey, just run straight down the field’ all the time. Some of it is scheme-wise to open other guys up. Against certain coverages, I have certain responsibilities. We do attack vertically. That’s a strength of ours, and I’m one of the guys that they definitely use to do that.”
Combine all that with a San Francisco defense that gave up 396 yards passing to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in the NFC title game, and it could add up to a very long night for the 49ers.
“Joe Flacco, he’s playing excellent football right now,” former 49ers star receiver Jerry Rice said. “You’ve got Torrey Smith and also Anquan Boldin on the outside, and passes over 18 yards. They targeted Torrey Smith 109 times. So they’re not afraid to throw the ball deep. The secondary of the San Francisco 49ers, they have had problems with the deep ball, so they can’t let these guys run free.”
The 49ers know this. Whether they can prevent Smith & Co. from breaking loose is another story. Rice is also a threat — he caught 61 passes for 478 yards during the regular season.
“I think No. 1, you’ve got one (receiver) that’s got track speed that will take the top off your defense, so he’s going to draw some attention,” San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “Anquan is a very physical guy. He doesn’t go deep as much as Torrey, but he’s got the ability to. He’s just got that connection, strong arm guy, physical guy, so it’s going to be a challenge with him, too.
“We’re challenged at every position. The tight end in the red zone, he’s got a connection, too. Ray Rice out of the backfield, people don’t look at that, but when you break down film, he continues to make linebackers look silly and break yards. … So everybody on our side of the ball has their hands full with those guys.”
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens’ defense will be poised to hitch their emotions to middle linebacker Ray Lewis for the final stage of his last ride into retirement. The 37-year-old announced before Baltimore’s first playoff game that he would quit when the Ravens ended their run, and since that time they’ve been played their best football of the year.
So has Lewis. He has a team-high 44 tackles during the playoffs after missing the previous 10 games with a torn right triceps.
“They’re going to be up,” San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. “Ray Lewis means a lot to that organization. He’s been playing the game for a long time, he’s probably the best at his position and guys love him.”
Sure, the Ravens would love to win it for Lewis. But only one player on the roster owns a Super Bowl ring (Lewis), and the rest of the players are in it for themselves.
“There’s no way in the world that you can imagine Torrey blocking better down the field because Ray is quitting,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. “There’s no way in the world that (fullback) Vonta Leach is going to give that much more, knocking that linebacker in the hole. I believe if Ray was saying he was going to play another year, these guys would give us the same thing.”
Ravens offensive linebacker Bobby Williams was asked why the Ravens are going to win.
“The spirit of the team is something special,” he said. “Everybody works hard around the league. The 49ers work hard. But the spirit of this team is different.”
After thumping Indianapolis at home and outlasting the top-seeded Broncos in double overtime, Baltimore disposed of host New England. Flacco, in succession, outplayed Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Now he goes up against second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is fleet of foot but short on experience.
Unless Kaepernick runs wild or connects repeatedly with Randy Moss, the self-proclaimed “greatest receiver ever to play this game,” then big brother John Harbaugh will be the one smiling when shaking hands with little brother Jim, San Francisco’s coach, as purple and black confetti falls from the roof of the Superdome.
PREDICTION: Ravens 24, 49ers 20.