San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson has been taking a course in Joe Flacco 101 the past two weeks.
In studying Flacco through three playoff wins over the Colts, Broncos and Patriots, one thing in particular stood out to Goldson about the Baltimore Ravens quarterback:
That No. 5 can throw the football a very long way.
In Baltimore’s victory over Denver, Flacco connected on a 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones. Against the Colts, he hit a well-covered Anquan Boldin in stride from more than 40 yards, with the ball landing in his hands as if perfectly placed.
“I didn’t know he could throw that far,” Goldson told the media this week. “I didn’t know his arm strength was that intact. But definitely his arm strength, his ability to see guys down the field. He’s got a lot of confidence in his receivers.
“Sometimes you see those guys covered, and he’ll still chuck the ball up there.”
This may be one of the biggest challenges for San Francisco’s secondary this Sunday in its Super-Bowl matchup with Baltimore: not getting burned deep by Flacco’s arm, or underestimating how far the quarterback can fling the football.
Safeties Goldson and Donte Whitner and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers can’t be lulled by the Ravens running game or Baltimore’s penchant for hitting tight end routes in the middle of the field. Always, Flacco will go long. It’s part of his nature.
Plus, Ravens wideout Torrey Smith may be one of the best deep threats in the NFL.
“Torrey Smith is extremely fast, probably top five in the National Football League as far as pure, straight-line speed,” Whitner told Pro Football Weekly. “And that’s his (Flacco’s) deep throw. When he wants to go deep, he’s going to Torrey Smith. He can run other routes, but his specialty is going deep.”
Though the 49ers have beaten two top-flight quarterbacks in their two postseason games, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, Flacco is a different sort. He’s been more erratic during his career, but he also goes for the bomb more often, too.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco attempted more deep throws – a pass that travels at least 20 yards through the air – than any other quarterback in the NFL in 2012 (17.3 percent of his attempts). On those passes he produced 11 TDs with zero interceptions.
In three playoff games, he completed 12-of-24 deep throws for 416 yards, four TDs and no interceptions.
“He has a strong arm and there is no question about how far he can throw the ball,” said 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. “He can move a little bit. For us, we are going to have to play great team football. Our coverages are going to have to be great and guys are going to have to get after him when we’re rushing.”
Chris Brown, writing for ESPN’s Grantland this week, said Flacco’s desire to go long will be tested by the 49ers coverages, which can be complex and switch often from man-to-man to zone. Yet he notes that early in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game win over the Falcons, Atlanta was able to attack San Francisco’s secondary by bunching its wide receivers and using crossing routes – which can shed defenders in man-to-man coverage – and routes into the seams when the Niners switched to zone.
“This was basically the approach Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter took… and it worked well,” writes Brown.
That approach, he says, may be what the Ravens have seen and will use, especially early to loosen up the San Francisco defense.
To Whitner, a mistake in coverage could be costly Sunday with Flacco’s arm strength.
“A mistake against Baltimore can end the football game for us,” Whitner told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “(Against Atlanta) we really didn’t feel like it would end the game because they weren’t going for the home run ball that much. Against Baltimore, if you give that up, it can be the difference between winning and losing.”