Gregg Rosenthal previews the NFC Championship with a little help from NFL Game Rewind.
Atlanta's biggest edge in this game is outside the numbers with White and Julio Jones. Harry Douglas should also be a factor. The Falcons threw deep aggressively last week, and they seem to know that's their best change of winning the NFC Championship. This should be not be a ball control game.
The Falcons offensive line is better in pass protection than in the running game. That was certainly true last week, when Ryan's protection was practically spotless against the Seattle Seahawks. This is a much tougher matchup, but there are reasons to be concerned for the 49ers.
Justin Smith did not get a great push as a pass rusher last week in his first game back from a partial triceps tear. The 49ers barely ran their usual stunts with Smith and Aldon Smith. The younger pass rusher was far from dominant in his matchup against the Packers and has struggled to get sacks late in the year. Ray McDonald was also quiet. The 49ers have a great defensive line on paper, but they haven't really played to that level late in the season. Perhaps it wasn't just Justin Smith's injury. If Ryan can get time to throw, he should find some open receivers.
Testing the safeties
So much of this game for Atlanta will come down to winning one-on-one matchups. I wrote about the team's resurgent running game earlier in the week. Running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers need to get yards after contact. That's all about individual effort, which will also be a key for the wide receivers.
The 49ers cornerbacks Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver are all physical players. But White and Jones should be superior at going after contested passes. Ryan needs to trust his wideouts to win. San Francisco's secondary is very underrated, but occasionally Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner can be caught out of position because they are such aggressive run stoppers.
A matchup of future Hall of Famers?
All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman easily make up the best 1-2 combination of inside linebackers in the league. Their unique versatility keys so much about the 49ers defense. It will be fascinating to see how the 49ers choose to match up with Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Safeties will surely be on him sometime, but don't be surprised to see Willis jostling with Gonzo down the field. That's a classic matchup to keep an eye on. Atlanta will have to keep throwing because they know this won't be a defensive game.
The Falcons have struggled mightily with mobile quarterbacks like Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton and Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson all season. Colin Kaepernick has a way of making defenses look ridiculous. We just can't continue without presenting this play. Just watch Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. To the coaches film!
Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown last week was also a great example of what the zone read attack can do to defenders. Everyone blamed Packers linebacker Erik Walden for blowing the play, but Packers coach Kevin Greene noted this week it wasn't Walden's fault. To be more specific: Fault could be spread around.
Look below as linebacker Brad Jones and safety Charles Woodson get sucked in by the play-action. The Packers didn't even know who had the ball. Fullback Bruce Miller appeared to obscure the defenders' view at just the right time.
Kaepernick presents so many problems for a defense. The Packers got free blitzers on him, and he easily made them miss. So many times the coverage "won" on the play only for Kaepernick to get a big gain on a scramble. He really wasn't hitting his spots early against Green Bay and yet the 49ers were still putting up points.
Varied running game
No team mixes up their formations and pre-snap movement more than the 49ers. That makes their traditional running game so tough to defend because there is so much to defend, especially when you study their entire season. They move a lot before the snap on defense as well. Some late movement by Justin Smith on the defensive line created a lot of confusion for the Packers offensive line.
Which Falcons defenders will step up?
Atlanta's defense isn't playing particularly well. They gave up four touchdowns in Seattle's last five possessions last week. The Seahawks botched two earlier red zone trips or the Falcons wouldn't still be playing. Atlanta got virtually no pressure on Russell Wilson last week. They didn't blitz much, which did not work well. With John Abraham hurt, the Falcons need players to step up. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the best candidate.
Weatherspoon showed incredible pursuit last week on a play where he forced a fumble by Marshawn Lynch. He showed off impressive coverage skills breaking up a pass in the first quarter. But I included this play just to show his range. Weatherspoon is No. 56 and lines up on the right hashmark. This is not a play that Weatherspoon is expected to make. Look at where Weatherspoon is standing when Golden Tate catches the ball. That's closing speed.
Too many ways to win
The Falcons are good enough to make the Super Bowl. But if both teams are playing their best, the 49ers simply have more ways to win on Sunday. They have superior overall talent and coaching. A blowout win by San Francisco would surprise me a lot less than a Falcons victory.
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