Sunday’s Super Bowl offers many matchups to watch, including Colin Kaepernick vs. the Ravens run defense, Joe Flacco vs. the 49ers secondary and Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh.
But one of the most intriguing and important duels will be played out away from most cameras: 49ers left guard Mike Iupati vs. Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Iupati, in his third NFL season, was a Pro-Bowl pick for the first time this year and has been perhaps the most dominant offensive lineman on San Francisco’s dominating, physical offensive line.
The 6-foot-5, 331-pound former first-round pick out of Idaho combines with Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley to form perhaps the best left side in the NFL. Since coming into the league, Iupati has started every game over three seasons.
This season, Iupati was compared by former 49ers standout guard Randy Cross to Larry Allen, certainly a future Hall of Famer who played for the Cowboys, and former Raiders coach John Madden said: “Mike Iupati is not somebody I’d want to line up against. A couple of steps and he’s at full power. That was a hell of a draft choice.”
When Iupati was playing for Idaho, former Vandals and Green Bay Packers standout guard Jerry Kramer called the Packers to rave about him.
As Kramer recalled it to Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group this week, he said: “I’ve never called you guys about anything, but I’ve just seen the best prospect I’ve seen in 40 years. You’d better take a look at this kid.”
Yet as good as Iupati is, he will have his hands full with Ngata.
Ngata, the former Oregon All-American, is in his seventh season with Baltimore. At 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, he’s even bigger than Iupati and is a quick, nimble athlete who was a standout rugby player in Utah, where he grew up.
He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl this season and is a two-time All-Pro. This season he had his fifth straight season with five or more sacks – an amazing accomplishment for a defensive tackle – and was in on 50 tackles, while missing two games.
If Ngata can neutralize Iupati, he could create a logjam in the middle of the 49ers line and stuff San Francisco’s running game.
What makes Ngata so difficult to block is his quickness, balance and athletic ability. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger told the Salt Lake Tribune this week that Ngata is among the team’s top three athletes and “can move like a running back.”
Clarence Brooks, the Ravens defensive line coach, says Ngata can roam farther laterally than most defensive tackles to disrupt opponents’ plays.
“Other people are surprised by his overall athletic ability, based on his size whenever you see him,” Brooks told the Tribune. “He can do some things that are cat-like.”
Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst for NFL.com, says the Iupati vs. Ngata clash could be a difference-maker.
“This is going to be one of the more fun matchups to follow in this Super Bowl,” Jeremiah wrote. “Both players possess rare size, power and aggressiveness.”
In particular, Ngata is excellent against the run. If Iupati can’t handle him one-on-one, the 49ers might have to devote another blocker to him – or run elsewhere.
Though Ngata dealt with some injuries this season, the two weeks off between the AFC title game and Super Bowl should help him – just as it helps San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith.
Wrote Jeremiah, who gives Ngata the edge against Iupati: “When he’s fresh and healthy, he can dominate the line of scrimmage.”