3TFO: 49ers @ Falcons, NFC Championship
Atlanta has finally got the playoff monkey off its back. They may have made tough going of it, but the Falcons did not crash out of the playoffs at the first time of asking as many had been predicting. After racing out to a big lead, aided by the Seahawks bungling of their final possession of the half, the Falcons then conspired to lose the lead and hand Matt Ryan the ball needing to score with under a minute remaining. Ryan came up big and the Falcons escaped with a win they really should have had locked up before even entering the fourth quarter.
The 49ers, by contrast, were far more convincing in their display against the Packers, taking them down for the second time this season and leaving Green Bay with losses to San Francisco book-ending their season.
Can Ryan and the Falcons now play to their best with the pressure of getting their first playoff win lifted from their shoulders? Will the 49ers finally run into a poor game from Colin Kaepernick to derail their march to the Super Bowl? Let’s take a look at three of the most important matchups that will dictate which side comes away victorious.
Last week the Green Bay Packers acted like the notion of Colin Kaepernick running the ball had never even occurred to them. They showed no indication that anybody on the defensive coaching or playing staff had ever even seen this new witchcraft called the ‘read option’, and they compounded matters by playing an endless run of man coverage, ensuring that if the rushers up front strayed from their lanes Kaepernick could simply scramble into open field with everybody in coverage having their backs turned to him, blissfully unaware of the threat.
The bottom line is they defended the threat of Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense about as poorly as it is possible, and the Falcons need to do a better job or they will get just as badly gashed. One thing going in the Falcons favor already is that Atlanta plays largely zone coverage on the back end, limiting the plays where coverage defenders will have their backs to the threat. The Falcons in coverage will have their eyes on the quarterback and see early when he takes off to scramble. The bad news is that they have some of the poorer tackling players in the league once they do recognize that threat.
Asante Samuel’s tackling ineptitude is the stuff of legend by now, but Thomas DeCoud has matched him with 21 missed this season. Sean Weatherspoon, their best linebacker, isn’t far behind with 15, and Dunta Robinson has missed 13 as he elects to go for kill shots rather than wrap-up tackles more often than not. Atlanta has six defenders that have missed more than 10 tackles this season, meaning that even though they might recognize the problem sooner than the Packers did, they aren’t guaranteed to be able to come up and do anything about it. Russell Wilson took off scrambling six times last week and earned 58 yards and a touchdown, forcing two missed tackles in the process. Kaepernick is, if anything, even more dangerous in the open field.
The other area the Falcons need to be prepared for is the option offense that the 49ers can deploy. They saw a pretty conservative version of this last week against Seattle, but the 49ers are far more creative and varied with their playbook. Defending the option is all about assignment football, and last week Atlanta seemed to be relatively well prepared for what they would see from the Seahawks. San Francisco will show them far more variants, with more options to contend with, from both sides of the formation, and the Falcons need to be prepared to defend it with everybody in the front seven aware of their assignment.
49ers Cornerbacks vs. Falcons Wide Recievers
Last week one of the marquee matchups to watch was how Julio Jones and Roddy White did against the Seahawks duo of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. The end result was a mixed bag. They were targeted 16 times when covered by those corners, but caught only eight of those passes for 126 yards and a touchdown. In fact, 47 of those yards came on the touchdown, which saw White beat Sherman over the top on a deep route before getting in his face with a little trash talk. Outside of that pass the Seattle pair held the Falcons’ receivers to just 79 yards from 15 targets, while breaking up three passes.
San Francisco might not have Richard Sherman, but their corners are nothing to sneeze at, and it remains an interesting battle. Matt Ryan went deep eight times against the Seahawks, staying aggressive despite an excellent unit. The 49ers have the fourth-best deep (20+ yards in the air) completion percentage in the NFL, and the fourth-best yards per attempt figure on those passes. They also ranked sixth in the league defending balls thrown deep and outside the numbers, so whatever the Falcons choose to do it won’t be smooth sailing. Tarrell Brown has yet to allow a touchdown this season, and Chris Culliver has had some excellent games in deep coverage.
It might not have quite the same obvious marquee feel as it did last week, but the battle between the Atlanta receivers and the San Francisco corners is one that will go a long way toward determining the Falcons success on offense. They need to remain aggressive and get the better of this fight if they are to hang with the points that San Francisco can put up.
Sam Baker vs. Aldon Smith
At one point Aldon Smith was the fashionable pick for Defensive Player of the Year when it seemed all but certain that he would break the single-season sack record. Since the Miami game in Week 14, however, he failed to record a single sack and hasn’t earned a positive pass-rushing grade for any game. That isn’t to say that he has been completely blanked, because on those four games he has recorded 16 pressures and knocked the quarterback to the ground three times. He was never as good as the hype suggested at that point in the season, but nor is he merely the by-product of Justin Smith, as some want to now claim.
He will go up against Falcons LT Sam Baker for much of the game. Baker was a first-round pick but has been playing far closer to bust status than stud status so far in his career. This season has seen him improve dramatically, however. In 2010, the last time he saw a full slate of games, Baker allowed 10 sacks, but this season that number is just six, and his Pass Blocking Efficiency score has taken a notable upswing too. He finished the year 26th in that regard, level with Carolina’s Jordan Gross, and represents a far sterner test for Smith than might have been the case in years past.
The Falcons need Baker to hold up because Matt Ryan’s numbers plummet under pressure. This season his passer rating when he is kept clean in the pocket is 110.6, and he has thrown 27 touchdowns to just eight picks, completing 74.1% of his passes along the way. When he feels heat however, his passer rating nosedives to 63.8, he has thrown only eight touchdowns to match eight interceptions, and completed just 52.4% of his attempts.
If the 49ers can win that battle and get pressure on Ryan their prospects of progressing to the Super Bowl improve dramatically and, conversely, if the Falcons can keep their quarterback free of pressure they have a far better shot.
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