Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 | 10:45 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS — In the Super Bowl of brotherly love, neither the 49ers nor the Baltimore Ravens have fired salvos at one another this week.
The one possible exception is the low-boil, long-distance chippy exchanges between Ravens running back Ray Rice and the 49ers defense, specifically the linebackers, whom Rice says won’t be able to keep up if he happens to get isolated against them on pass patterns.
“I’ve heard that (Rice) has been saying a lot of good stuff about us,” Patrick Willis said Thursday with a wry grin. “I’m being sarcastic right now.”
Rice, the 5-foot-8, 212-pound dynamo, set the stage for one of the most crucial matchups in Super Bowl XLVII earlier in the week. A loquacious sort, Rice complimented Willis and his fellow linebackers for being one of the best units in the NFL, but then maintained they probably won’t be able to handle him in the open field.
“This game will come down to matchups,” Rice said. “In the run game, the linebackers, they might get their fair share of plays. They might make some tackles. But there comes a point in the game when you have to cover me.”
“I don’t think a lot of linebackers can cover me, not just the 49ers,” he said. “Linebackers are built a different way. They’re built to tackle. They’re not built to cover, so when I’ve got them man-to-man, I’m going to win my fair share. Let’s pad up. We’ve got to pad up to see.”
Even though the 49ers lost to the Ravens 16-6 in 2011, they did a decent job of containing Rice. He gained just 59 yards on 21 carries and, perhaps more important, he was limited to three catches for 24 yards. Consequently, they’re not sure where he’s coming from with all his talk.
“Let Ray Rice say what he says,” Willis said. “He’s a good football player. But we believe we can cover any back in the NFL. In the Super Bowl, the best cornerbacks cover the best receivers. The best safeties cover the best tight ends, and the best linebackers cover the best running backs. Watch the game tapes. We’ve been covering more elusive backs than him.”
NaVorro Bowman was even more direct in his comeback.
“Obviously, he’s underestimating us,” he said. “We’ll have to go out and show him on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it.”
In addition to rushing for 1,390 yards and 11 touchdowns through 19 games this season, Rice has caught 65 passes for 547 yards. Although he scored only one touchdown as a receiver, many 49ers defenders recalled the play he made in the Ravens’ improbable comeback victory in San Diego in Week 12. On fourth-and-29, Rice caught a pass in the right flat and zigzagged for 29 yards to help set up the field goal that sent the game into overtime, where the Ravens won 16-13.
Some 49ers were quick to note the breakdowns in the San Diego defense. “We don’t play like that,” Bowman said flatly.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers, alluding to the team’s film study of the Chargers game, said: “Their angles to the ball carrier were unbelievable. We just said, ‘Oh, my God. What y’all doin’?”
Still, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who spent two seasons in Baltimore, knows how lethal Rice can be. And he said his defense must be at the top of its game to deal with him.
“He’s extremely quick and fast, No. 1,” Fangio said. “He has the ability to jump cut and cut the ball back at any moment. He’s only 5-8 but he’s a very strong 5-8. He’s very tough to cover. Joe Flacco likes to throw it to him, and he has been one of their leading receivers every year since he’s been in the league. So he’s a dual threat, and he doesn’t have a weakness.”
Fangio said every player on defense will need to keep an eye on Rice. Linemen will play a pivotal role when Rice runs. Linebackers must watch for him on pass plays. And the secondary will need to be alert to Rice breaking through the first two lines of defense.
One thing is for sure: Rice’s words got around to the entire defense, so he won’t sneak up on anybody.
“He’s a good player, so of course he’s going to be confident in his talents,” said end Ray McDonald. “But we have good players, too. I’m pretty sure whatever guys we have on him will be up to the challenge of stopping him.”
“First, our D-line, whoever’s in the ballgame, has got to stop the run,” said linebacker Ahmad Brooks. “And the linebackers have just got to cover him when he comes out of the backfield. That’s all you can do. There’s nothing scientific about it. Get up there and cover him. He runs hard. I played against him last year. I hit him and felt the hit. But just like any running back in the NFL, you have to wrap up, drive through and bring him down.”