The San Francisco 49ers go into Atlanta this weekend to take on the Falcons. Each team has a lot to prove and victory provides vindication and a trip to the Super Bowl for both. The Falcons, who've never won a Super Bowl, have only appeared in one and had gone one-and-done in each of their previous playoff trips in the Matt Ryan era, have the home-field advantage and are trying to re-write their history books. The 49ers are trying to add a record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy to the mantle, all while justifying Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's gutsy move to change quarterbacks from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the season.
Despite strong play from Kaepernick in his seven regular season starts, there were still many questions about his readiness and nerves going into his first playoff appearance. He outplayed both Tom Brady and Drew Brees during the year, but expectations were high in San Francisco from the beginning and anything less than a Super Bowl victory will likely be viewed as a disappointment.
Kaepernick lived up to the hype, more than reaffirming his coach's faith. Following an interception on his second throw of the game, returned for a touchdown by Sam Shields, Kaepernick was record-breakingly electric. He ran for 181 yards on 16 carries and scored twice on the ground. He threw for 263 more yards to go with two touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree. His rushing total set a new all-time record for quarterbacks, postseason or regular season, and his 444 combined yards and 4 touchdowns made for an incredible first playoff performance.
The Falcons, on the other hand, nearly had the rug pulled out from under them against the Seahawks. After staking themselves to an early 20-0 lead and going into the fourth quarter up 27-7, the wheels nearly came off. Seatlle, and rookie quarterback sensation Russell Wilson, staged a furious comeback, taking the lead 28-27 with under a minute to play. But Matt Ryan moved the Falcons into field goal range in only two plays and Matt Bryant pushed the game-winner through the uprights with seconds to play. A loss would have been disastrous for the Falcons, meaning a fourth consecutive first game exit from the playoffs. Disaster averted. There's still a lot of work ahead for Mike Smith and Co.
Some of Atlanta's defensive stats coming out of the Seattle game are worrisome. They surrendered 491 yards of offense to the Seahawks and will be facing a 49ers team that tallied 579 yards against Green Bay. The Falcons are a similar team to the Packers in many respect. Both teams rely heavily on their passing attack on offense and are weak against the run on defense. Both have multiple weapons in the passing game that need to be accounted for. The 49ers offensive line is one of the best in the league and has steamrolled teams that struggle to defend the run. While the 49ers are 1-3-1 in games when their opponent rushes for over 100 yards, against top-10 passing teams they've gone undefeated. Basically, the Falcons weaknesses play into the 49ers hands, while their strengths are what the Niners are most adept at dealing with.
The Falcons had trouble against running quarterbacks this season. Carolina's Cam Newton averaged 352 yards per game on the ground and through the air and accounted for 6 touchdowns against them. Last week, with their season in the balance, a well-rested Atlanta defense gave up 386 yards passing and 2 touchdowns to go with 60 yards rushing and a score to Russell Wilson. If anything, Kaepernick is more dangerous on his feet than Wilson, and he should be even quicker playing on the astroturf in Atlanta. His 181 yards vs Green Bay came on a Candlestick field that looked like Churchill Downs after the Derby. Atlanta's best pass rusher, John Abraham, is hobbled by an ankle injury, making the notion of containing Kaepernick on the edge an even tougher proposition.
Green Bay was victimized by their unwillingness to abandon man-to-man coverage. Once Kaepernick would take off scrambling, the Packer secondary had their backs turned and were late to recognize the need to stop an impromptu run. Atlanta won't have that problem, as they tend to play zone defense. There is, however, a bigger problem. Whether they notice Kaepernick has taken off running may not matter, as their secondary is one of the worse tackling units in the league. Pro Football Focus has noted this and credits Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud with 21 missed tackles and states that Atlanta has 6 defenders with 10 or more missed tackles on the year.
Last weekend against the Seahawks, the achilles heel of the defense was tight end Zach Miller. He torched the zone coverage for 8 catches, 142 yards and a touchdown. Running backs also had success coming out of the backfield. Both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin had 37 yards receiving for a combined 74 yards given up in the passing game to running backs on only 5 catches. San Francisco's tight ends are clearly more dangerous than Miller, with both Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker possessing wide receiver speed. Davis has had a quiet season after a torrid first 3 games and Walker has had issues dropping passes. Both figure to test the Falcons. LaMichael James could also see some action in the passing game from the running back position and is a threat any time he's in the open field.
Both Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree had massive games against Green Bay and should be expected to carry it over in Atlanta, especially considering the Falcons' tackling deficiencies. Gore was able to gouge the Packers for 119 yards and 1 touchdown. Crabtree, who has come into his own since Kaepernick took over at quarterback, had another stellar performance, catching 9 passes for 119 yards and two scores. His two touchdowns came in the second quarter when the game was still close. His second score, in particular, showed the chemistry between he and the second-year signal caller, as Kaepernick hit him an instant after his break, putting the ball where only he could catch it on a deep slant with Shields providing excellent coverage. As I write this, it has come out that Crabtree is under investigation by the San Francisco Police Department for an alleged sexual assault. He is innocent until proven guilty, was questioned and released, but whether or not this effects his play remains to be seen.
The 49ers offensive line played a perfect game agains the Packers last weekend. They paved the way for 323 yards rushing and gave up a single sack on the day, which occurred on a play in which Kaepernick held the ball for quite some time. They only allowed four hurries, one of which led to the Kaepernick interception. Each of the five players stood out against the Packers and one can expect a similar display against Atlanta. The previously mentioned Abraham, the Falcons leader in sacks and the main threat to Kaepernick, was non-effective against Seattle and left the game halfway through. He insists he'll play this weekend, but whether he plays like he did all season or plays like he did vs the Seahawks is the big question.
Another thing to keep in mind when discussing the Atlanta Falcons' defense is that, while they gave up a lot of yards this season, ranking 24th in yards allowed, their red zone defense was one of the best in the leagues. They finished the year ranked 4th, giving up TDs on only 46% of red zone possessions. The 49ers struggled against the Miami Dolphins, the league leader in red zone defense, in Week 14, only finishing off the overmatched adversary in the final minutes.
Touching on the other side of the ball, briefly, the 49ers pass defense was one of the best in the league. Their task of slowing down Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is a formidable one, but one they've accomplished several times on the season. The Saints, the Packers (twice), the Lions and the Patriots (to a lesser extent) all came up short against the Niners defense. Tarell Brown played great against the Packers and has not allowed a touchdown in coverage all season. They've excelled at keeping the game in front of them, allowing the 4th lowest completion percentage on deep balls (per PFF). Matt Ryan and the Falcons will try to test them deep, as they did against the vaunted Seahawks secondary. The Niners defensive backfields is also one of the better tackling units in the league, unlike their Atlanta counterpart, and have done an excellent job at limiting yards after the catch, specifically to opponents receivers.
The Falcons will need to establish some sort of a running game. They finished the year ranked 29th on the ground. They had surprising success against a formidable Seattle run defense and matching that performance will ease the pressure on Ryan and the passing game. In defense of the Seahawks defense, the team played three games in three cities over the last three weeks and had made multiple cross-country flights in that span. The league didn't help them, either, electing to have them play the early game on the East Coast, always a difficult feat for West Coast teams. They came out flat and found themselves down 20-0 at the half.
I have no doubt that the 49ers will rack up yardage on the Falcons this Sunday. I'm anticipating frequent trips inside the 20-yard line. Even if Atlanta continues their strong red zone play, it's a daunting task when the opponent is there two out of every three drives. The Falcons strengths and weaknesses play perfectly into the Niners' hands and, for a top-tier team, they appear to be taylor-made for San Francisco to beat. Matt Ryan will get some things going, as the trio of White, Jones and Gonzalez are impossible to keep quiet for an entire game. The Falcons won't have success on the ground again this week, with NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and the rest of the Niners sure-tackling defense proving to fast and too strong. As we've seen all year long, one dimensional teams don't have what it takes to win versus San Francisco. Even factoring in the Falcons red zone defense, too many trips into the land of milk and honey puts too many points on the board. 49ers 30, Falcons 20.