The NFC Championship Game features quite a matchup: the high-powered offense of the Atlanta Falcons taking on a San Francisco 49ers defense that is regarded as one of the best in the NFL. While traditionalists still believe that defense wins championships, I contend that the Falcons' offense certainly is good enough to carry them to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film to see how the Falcons have evolved over the course of the 2012 season, here are a few things I expect offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to incorporate to create problems for the 49ers' defense:
1) Get Roddy White and Julio Jones at least 15 combined touches.
The primary objective of an NFL offensive coordinator is to put the ball in the hands of his best players as much as possible. In Atlanta, White and Jones are the most explosive offensive weapons in the lineup. Each is a big, physical playmaker with outstanding speed and quickness, possessing running skills to transform short passes into big gains. White and Jones have the capacity to win on vertical routes, while also excelling on underneath routes over the middle of the field. Given the interchangeable nature of their respective games, the Falcons have the ability to mix and match their formations and play calls to capitalize on favorable matchups in the passing game.
In the NFC Championship Game, Koetter will utilize some creativity to get the ball to White and Jones against San Francisco's stifling coverage. The 49ers don't employ a complex scheme, but their defenders are fundamentally sound and their attention to detail makes it tough to create big-play opportunities. However, the Falcons' dynamic passing catching duo is ultra-talented and highly capable of winning isolated matchups on the outside. I expect Koetter to implement some tactics utilized by the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots to exploit the 49ers' coverage.One of the tactics that I anticipate seeing early and often in this game is the wide receiver screen. The Falcons have made this play a staple of their offensive playbook to take advantage of the running skills of White and Jones. In addition, the play serves as an effective counter to the press coverage sometimes used by the Niners. The screen also serves as a potential blitz-beater against San Francisco's pass rush. Although the 49ers are not a blitz-heavy outfit, the need to move Matt Ryan off his sweet spot in the pocket could prompt a more aggressive approach from Vic Fangio in this contest. Thus, the screen could give Ryan a fail-safe play to turn to in every situation.
In the screengrab below from the Falcons' Week 16 win over the Detroit Lions, White is positioned at the top of the screen. Atlanta is running a wide receiver screen against the Lions' Cover 2 defense:
At the snap, White takes a couple strides upfield before peeling back to field the pass. Tight end Tony Gonzalez kicks out the defensive back and White follows the convoy down the field for a 39-yard touchdown:
In the next screengrab from Atlanta's Week 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Jones is aligned at the bottom of the screen. The Falcons have another WR screen called with Jones as the intended receiver:
At the snap, he works a few yards up the field before retreating to catch the pass. Slot receiver Harry Douglas kicks out the defensive back and Jones looks for a crease behind his offensive linemen working up the field:
Jones finds a seam and scoots to the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown:
Koetter will also incorporate a few deceptive pass plays to create big-play opportunities for White and Jones. The Falcons' offensive coordinator is regarded as a masterful play designer, and he has shown the capacity to exploit opponents' weaknesses with creative schematics. Last week, I watched from the press box as he attacked the Seattle Seahawks with a few deceptive plays that exploited the secondary's aggressiveness.
In the video clip to your right, the Falcons fake a bubble screen to draw a quick reaction from the Seahawks before hitting White on a post. The Falcons routinely run the WR screen to get the ball quickly to Jones, but they recognized earlier in the game that the Seahawks were flying up to attack the screen. Ryan used a hard pump fake to Jones to move the secondary in that direction, taking safety Kam Chancellor out of the middle of the field. White slipped past Richard Sherman and scored a 47-yard touchdown.
Finally, I would expect Koetter to dial up a handful of deep shots to Jones to see if the second-year pro can run past Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown. Culliver, in particular, has been susceptible to the deep ball, so he could be the likely target in the game plan, based on film study. Given Jones' speed, explosiveness and big-play ability, I wouldn't be surprised to see Ryan take four to five deep shots in his direction, particularly if Culliver is assigned to him.
2) Work the middle of the field with Tony Gonzalez.
The Falcons certainly deserve kudos for building an offense that accentuates the strengths of their franchise quarterback. With explosive playmakers on the perimeter (White and Jones) and a veteran pass catcher in the middle of the field (Gonzalez), the Falcons' lineup provides Ryan with a wealth of options to target against any defensive tactic. Gonzalez, in particular, has been key to Ryan's recent success, providing superb route running and exceptional hands. Despite his diminishing physical skills, he has a knack for getting open against superior athletes, which allows Ryan to target him as a safety valve in critical moments. This particularly shows up in third-down and red-zone situations. Gonzalez has converted 67.7 percent of his receptions into first downs, with only three of his 93 regular-season receptions totaling 20 yards or more. This is indicative of his ability to work the intermediate areas of the field, particularly the 8-10 yard area between the hashes.
Gonzalez's red-zone prowess is reflected in his nine touchdowns this season (including postseason play). Gonzalez has become Ryan's top target near the end zone, and defenses have been unable to stop him, despite knowing it's coming. Part of Gonzalez's success can be attributed to his exceptional body control and previous experience as a basketball player. He understands how to obtain "post-up" position on smaller defenders to make difficult grabs, which expands the strike zone for Ryan.
The video clip to your right -- from the Falcons' Week 15 shellacking of the New York Giants -- is the perfect illustration of Ryan taking advantage of Gonzalez's size and athleticism in the red zone. Gonzalez is aligned in the slot in the Falcons' trips formation to get him isolated with the middle linebacker on a seam route. The Giants are playing a two-deep coverage with Michael Boley assigned to Gonzalez down the pipe. Ryan ignores the tight coverage and throws the ball "high and away" to give Gonzalez an opportunity to make a terrific grab in a crowd. Gonzalez does just that, notching a 12-yard score.
Against San Francisco, the ability to throw to Gonzalez in the middle could serve as the perfect counter to the 49ers' 2-Man tactics. The coverage, which features two deep safeties and five underneath defenders in trail coverage, reduces the open windows down the field and forces the quarterback to make pinpoint throws. Although NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are exceptional cover linebackers, the fact that Gonzalez is so effective making plays over the middle of the field should make him the primary option on most of the Falcons' passing plays.
3) Use Jacquizz Rodgers as a change-of-pace weapon.
Michael Turner is listed as the starter for the Falcons, but the most dynamic running back on their roster is Rodgers. During the regular season, the second-year pro totaled 764 yards from scrimmage on 147 touches with two scores. Rodgers excels at making plays on the perimeter with his speed and quickness, which encourages Koetter to give him the ball on off-tackle runs and toss sweeps. The Falcons cleverly mask their intentions by utilizing bunch and cluster formations, creating the illusion of the pass.
In the following screengrab from Atlanta's Week 12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons are aligned in a bunch formation with Rodgers offset to the right. Gonzalez and White are closely aligned to the right, as well:
At the snap, Gonzalez and White crack down on their assigned defenders, with right tackle Tyson Clabo pulling around the corner to kick out the first defender on the edge. Rodgers takes the pitch and attacks the crease for a 20-yard gain:
In addition, Rodgers displays the toughness and tenacity to run effectively between the tackles. He attacks the crease with urgency and displays stunning stop-start quickness in the hole. The Falcons have capitalized on his versatility by featuring him in one- and two-back formations.
The Falcons also feature Rodgers in the pass game on various screens and check downs that routinely result in big gains. This adds another dimension to Atlanta's pass game, giving Ryan a big-play opportunity with minimal risk. Given the 49ers' sterling defensive reputation, the Falcons could heavily lean on Rodgers to provide a spark on Sunday.
4) Change the tempo with the no-huddle offense.
The Falcons have been one of several NFL teams to flirt with the no-huddle offense in 2012. Koetter has routinely entrusted Ryan to call the game from the line of scrimmage, while utilizing a hurry-up tempo to limit the options available to defensive coordinators. By quickening the tempo between plays, the Falcons wear down opponents and restrict them from using exotic substitution packages in key situations. Most importantly, the frenetic pace leads defensive play callers to adopt a conservative approach due to concerns about blown assignments and communication issues. As a result, the Falcons routinely face vanilla defensive looks, allowing Ryan to attack coverage aggressively from the pocket.
The utilization of the no-huddle offense could give the Falcons a significant edge against the 49ers' defense in the Georgia Dome. A hurried pace combined with a sting of successful plays puts the offense in a rhythm that energizes the home crowd. Most importantly, the quickened tempo could turn the game into the track meet that the Falcons prefer on their home turf.
When I studied the All-22 tape of the 49ers' Week 15 win over the Patriots, I noticed that San Francisco's defense appeared to struggle containing Tom Brady and Co. when the Patriots used the no-huddle. The Pats scored on five of eight drives, including four touchdowns, when they employed the approach against San Francisco, overcoming a 28-point deficit before falling just short.
Some would suggest that the 49ers altered their defensive approach with a big lead, but it is apparent watching the tape that the defense started to wilt under the barrage of successive plays from the Patriots. The pass rush, in particular, started to wear down late with the 49ers unable to rotate defensive linemen due to the pace.
If the Falcons can speed up the game and push their play count to 70-plus snaps, the offense could wear out the 49ers' vaunted defense over the course of the game, allowing them to prevail down the stretch in a tight one.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.