With shot at division, 49ers pose formidable run defense

There are so many storylines to Thursday night’s matchup between the 49ers and Ravens. Of course, brothers John and Jim Harbaugh will go head to head, though both say the spotlight shouldn’t be on them, while the game itself will feature two teams in first place in their respective divisions.

But the similarities don’t stop at just the family name and pedigree for winning football. For both San Francisco and Baltimore, the key to success is on the ground. For the Ravens, running back Ray Rice continues to shine in his fourth season. The 5-foot-7 workhorse has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on offense, rushing for 663 yards and hauling in 513 more in the receiving game. As evidenced by Baltimore’s loss to Seattle two weeks ago, if Rice isn’t effective, the Ravens will struggle.

That might just be the case Thursday night, however. Entering Week 12, the 49ers boast the league’s top run defense, allowing less than 75 yards a game. Linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are a lethal one-two punch, and are first and second on the team in tackles. Not only do the 49ers not allow yards on the ground, they’ve yet to surrender a single rushing touchdown all season. Not one. The Ravens will hope to put an end to that streak Thursday.

But all this talk about the 49ers rush defense against the Ravens rushing attack shouldn’t overshadow the opposite matchup. Running back Frank Gore is dealing with some injuries, but otherwise has had a solid season. His 870 yards and five touchdowns are a big factor in San Francisco’s 9-1 record, as is his penchant for manufacturing long runs. So far, Gore has had eight runs of more than 20 yards.

Just as Rice could struggle, though, Gore could do the same. As ESPN points out, the Ravens allow just 3.3 yards per carry, best in the NFL, and have allowed the fewest runs of at least 20 yards. It’ll be the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Something will have to give.

Of course, the Ravens need a win to keep pace in the AFC North, while the 49ers, with a win or tie and a Seattle loss Sunday, will clinch the NFC West with more than a month to prepare for the playoffs. If they are able to clinch, it’ll be the fastest a team has done so since the Indianapolis Colts did it the same time two seasons ago. That team went on to the Super Bowl. The 49ers hope to say the same down the road.