ReFo: 49ers @ Falcons, NFC Championship
PFF's Ben Stockwell says the 49ers' thrilling victory over the Falcons -- which earns a first trip to the Super Bowl since the mid-90s -- was keyed by the "ultimate ...
ReFo: 49ers @ Falcons, NFC Championship
For the second week in a row the Atlanta Falcons squandered a three-score lead to an NFC West opponent in a home playoff game — but this time around there was no last-minute heroics to spare their blushes and keep alive their Super Bowl hopes.
Once again the Falcons started fast and looked in danger of going out of sight but once San Francisco got rolling it seemed a matter of when, not if, the lead would be surrendered. Atlanta kept the tide at bay as long as possible courtesy of a missed field goal by David Akers and a goal-line turnover forced by Dunta Robinson, but in the end it was Frank Gore who stamped the 49ers’ ticket to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII in a fortnight’s time.
The nature of this defeat, and the Falcons’ victory last week against Seattle, will ensure that even with that elusive first playoff victory now in Matt Ryan’s pocket, questions will still be posed as to the poise and composure of a team that again failed to deliver on its regular season promise. However, no such questions can be raised over the 49ers who exorcised their own demons from a home conference championship defeat last year with a comeback victory which was all about sticking to the plan, sticking with the run, and not being panicked into chasing the game. That calm and composure saw them to their first Super Bowl since 1995.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Not a One-man Backfield
While Frank Gore has certainly got plenty of credit in his career, there is no doubt Colin Kaepernick’s performance last weekend caught the attention of the national media and, apparently, the Atlanta team. It was clear the Falcons’ defense was not going to let Kaepernick beat them with his legs and consequently Kaepernick didn’t keep the ball very often on any option plays. With the Falcons consciously playing wide on the edge to force the handoff, his sole carry on a ‘student-body right’ play culminated in a 2-yard loss. However, that focus left them vulnerable to the 49ers’ running backs, and both Gore (+1.5 rushing) and LaMichael James (+1.1) shone. James showed his scintillating burst to score — for the first time in his NFL career — from 15 yards out, while Gore churned out two touchdowns with the Falcons unable to consistently force the handoff and then work back to the running back. Combine that with an offensive line that (Mike Iupati aside) played to its advertised level, and it’s nigh on impossible to stop.
Smith Rediscovers Some Form
Ever since talk started about his potential to set a new record for sacks, Aldon Smith’s productivity and performance level has disappeared back toward mediocrity. Smith has not recorded a sack since the 49ers’ Week 14 win over the Dolphins, and in that time his overall grade has been a disappointing -2.0, with only three quarterback hits to his name. While Smith again failed to take the quarterback down, he turned in one of his best performances of the season by recording pressure seven times (2 Hits, 5 Hurries) and being a persistent nuisance to the Falcons’ running game, even though he recorded only one tackle. He was able to get penetration into the backfield to force redirects and helped ensure the Falcons could never control the tempo with the lead. Smith even spent some time in an interior alignment, over Peter Konz, late in the second quarter, and recorded pressure from there on the Falcons’ final touchdown drive. The 49ers’ defense tends to be fairly straight laced but it would be fascinating to see Smith get a few snaps over Marshal Yanda on obvious passing situations in New Orleans.
A Rare Letdown
Last week against Green Bay, Mike Iupati put in the kind of performance that proved why he was voted a first team All-Pro guard. He followed that up this week however, with a very poor display and that inconsistency is part of the reason why we had Evan Mathis as our PFF first team All-Pro. This performance is far from the norm by Iupati, but it was not his first poor game of the season, particularly in pass protection. He tied a season high by yielding four pressures one of which was a particularly embarrassing sack by Corey Peters where he was beaten for speed by the Falcons’ hefty interior lineman. In combination with this, Iupati put together the worst display of run blocking (-1.9) we have graded all season struggling to deliver inline blocks and locate defenders on pull blocks. Iupati’s pass protection has been inconsistent all season, but not his run blocking which has never until now. What this performance shows is even the league’s elite are not immune from the occasional poor day.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Making his Presence Known
Last season in the playoffs, Julio Jones went out with a little bit of a whimper. He snagged seven passes in his playoff debut, but at only 9.1 yards per catch with a long of 20 yards. After a similarly quiet performance against the Seahawks last week (6/10, 59 yards, long of 21) Jones exploded with the type of big-time performance the Falcons banked on when they sold the farm to draft him two years ago. His toe-tapping touchdown against Tarell Brown was an amazing grab off a double move and beat good coverage. The 49ers corner made the grab tough, but Matt Ryan and Jones (+4.1) came up with the perfect throw. This should realistically have been a game-winning contribution from Jones but once more, it was not to be.
Run Defense Flatters to Deceive
As already discussed, the Falcons’ run defense succeeded in its primary goal of shutting down the running threat of Colin Kaepernick but lost sight of the big picture, which was bringing the 49ers’ entire ground game to a grinding halt. With the Falcons so intent on turning runs inside they really needed the likes of Stephen Nicholas, Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon to have big games but none of them managed to have that kind of presence. They did well in limiting the 49ers’ designed ground game to a longest gain of 15 yards, James’ touchdown run, but there were consistent gains of 5, 6 and 7 yards to ensure the 49ers were rarely put into long yardage as the Falcons’ trio combined for only six stops against the run all day.The Falcons attempted to upgrade their defense through coaching changes last offseason, but it may be approaching the time for them to look to upgrade their playing personnel if they are hoping to make that next step.
A Fitting End?
For such a fabled career Tony Gonzalez’s time in the NFL has been short on playoff success. However, in the last two games he put in the sort of effort and performances that shows that if he is to bow out without a Super Bowl appearance it won’t be for want of trying. After turning in his best run-blocking performance of the past three seasons, to go with a trademark toe-tap touchdown, against the Seahawks last week he was again a solid and consistent contributor in every aspect of tight end play this week. Gonzalez snagged every pass targeted in his direction, including a touchdown for the second straight game. If Gonzalez does bow out then these final two displays would be a fitting final chapter to an exceptional career.
— He may have been quiet for much of this season as a receiver, but Vernon Davis (+5.5) has still played well for much of the year. He timed his return to prominence in the passing game brilliantly and the Ravens had best not try to cover him down the field with linebackers as the Falcons attempted.
— After a combined 33 targets in this game, the trio of Roddy White, Jones and Gonzalez took their season total to 446 (including playoffs), 66.9% of Ryan’s targeted passes. If Tony Gonzalez does turn that 95% retirement chance into 100% the Falcons will need to find a reliable third option to take some of those targets.
— Ray Lewis isn’t the only one playing well through a potentially season-ending triceps injury. He may not be a force as a pass rusher (only two hurries in two playoff games), but Justin Smith is playing the run tremendously with three stops in each of the 49ers’ victories and plenty of disruption around those stops.
PFF Game Ball
The 49ers comeback was as much about their defense as their offense. While Frank Gore and the offense put the points on the board to overcome the deficit, the 49ers defense, led by NaVorro Bowman’s crucial plays in the passing game, ensured the Falcons didn’t add another point in the second half and gave the 49ers’ offense a static target. The ultimate team effort.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.