The Falcons' brand of southern hospitality will be served up by QB Matt Ryan, big play WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones, and a defense schemed by none other than former 49er head coach, Mike Nolan. Their brand of football was good enough to earn them the top seed in the NFC.
Though the Falcons are the NFCs #1 seed this season, the 49ers present a few matchup problems that could have a huge impact on this week's game. We'll be looking at those matchups this week...plus taking a look back at what we consider to be last week's most underrated performances (since it goes without saying that we all know who the MVP was).
Most Underrated Performance vs the Packers
AJ: From "the Catch" to Joe Montana's clinical demolition of the Dolphins to Steve Young's 6-TD effort versus the Chargers, this team has more than its fair share of playoff heroes. After last week's win over the Packers, it's safe to say that we can add Colin Kaepernick to that list.
But last week's game had its share of unsung heroes, too. For my money, the most underrated performance of last week's game came from Alex Boone.
This season, the 49er offensive line is widely considered the best in the game. Last season, that was hardly the case. The sole change in the offensive trenches? The addition of an undrafted Tackle at Right Guard. The result? Well...the result was plain to see last weekend. The 49er run game was dominant. Outside of Colin Kaepernick's QB record 181 yards (7.3 ypc) Frank Gore rolled up 119 yards (5.1 ypc) ... there were times where it seemed almost unfair.
The fulcrum of the 49er ground game is their ability to get their guards out in front of the play, using additional bodies to create overloads to the power side. In last week's game, however, the 49ers stayed away from overloads, choosing to bring their front 5 against whatever Dom Capers decided to throw at them. As such, there were times when Boone was tasked with manning up against Ryan Pickett or BJ Raji. The net result? Complete domination.
His best play of the game came on Colin Kaepernick's game changing 3rd quarter TD run. On the play, his responsibility was to seal backside pursuit...and boy did he. He beat Raji off of the snap and blew him right out of his stance.
Boone isn't the only dominator on the 49er offensive line, but he's the one who receives the least credit. If he has many more games like last week's, that won't be the case for long.
Diego: There was a point during the season where Chris Culliver's play was so good I thought the 49ers had struck more than gold when they picked him in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the 80th overall pick (and yes, I bashed the pick at the time). Culliver's performance towards the middle of the season was so good I had upgraded his status from "striking gold" to him being a "diamond in the rough", but lately he's been more rough than diamond ... which made Tarell Brown's performance so important last Saturday vs Green Bay.
While Culliver's performance has really dipped over at least his last four games, Brown has steadily become the 49ers best cornerback, and he quietly kept this position with another outstanding performance against Aaron Rodgers' receivers. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Rodgers threw just 4 of his 39 passes to receivers being covered by Brown, completing 2 passes for 16 yards. Brown, you may remember, also made an outstanding heads up play by turning upfield on an overthrown pass by Rodgers that he was able to intercept and return 39 yards into Packers territory. The 49ers then went on to a scoring drive bookended by Colin Kaepernick's 20-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree.
In a game dominated by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense, Brown's play went widely unnoticed, but it's about time we start recognizing the stellar play of the former Longhorn (who by the way, should had been credited with a second interception towards the end of the game.
Key Match-up on Offense vs Atlanta
AJ: For much of the 2012 season, the Falcons have had a very difficult time defending mobile QBs, most notably Cam Newton. In fact, Atlanta gives up more yards per carry to QBs than any team in the NFL. Given the Falcons' struggles this season, Colin Kaepernick presents a unique challenge to Mike Nolan's defense: do they rush 3 and spy him, or bring 4 and hope to keep him contained?
If the Falcons opt to spy Kaepernick on order to limit his rushing opportunities, they'll be taking a player out of coverage, which will open up passing options...especially with play action. If the Falcons go the route of employing a spy (likely Witherspoon or Moore), look for the 49ers to counter with play action out of the spread option (Shotgun formation, one back) in order to isolate Delanie Walker or Vernon Davis on a linebacker or safety in single coverage, a huge mismatch given the Falcons' defensive personnel.
If the Falcons opt to rush 4 in order to bring pressure, they could be in trouble...especially with their best pass rusher John Abraham nursing a sprained ankle. If the Falcons decide to stay away from spying Kaep, look for the 49ers to counter with a pistol look, especially the "diamond" formation, which will enable the offense to exploit the Falcon Defense with the read option.
If the 49ers get the read option game working, odds are they'll pull out a win this Sunday.
Diego: How is this for a freaky couple of stats? Frank Gore ran for 1,214 yards this season on 258 attempts, for an average of 4.7 yards per carry; The Atlanta Falcons gave up 1,971 rushing yards this season on 411 attempts, for an average of 4.8. With all the attention Kaepernick is deservedly getting, Frank Gore is set to have a standout game this Sunday against the Falcons.
Atlanta's issues against the run go further than the defensive line, where none of the four starters had a strong season stopping the run. Their linebackers are so inconsistent in their performance that PFF did not chose any of them in their All-NFC South team. Finally, the Falcons' secondary lacks the tackling discipline to contribute in run defense, and the sum of it all explains why Atlanta is the 21st ranked run defense, giving up an average on 123.2 yards/game, and giving up a little bit more than that at the Georgia Dome at 126.3 yards/game, for an average of, yup - you guessed it: 4.8 yards per carry.
This matchup is juicily tailor-made for Gore. Atlanta may have held Marshawn Lynch to a pedestrian 46 yards on 16 carries (2.9 yards/carry) last Sunday, but this is the same defense that gave up 49 yards on 11 carries to DeAngelo Williams (4.5), and 127 yards on 22 carries to LaRod Stephens-Howling (5.8), which once again shows us how inconsistent they can be. Oh by the way: they will be going against the best offensive line in the NFL this season. Look for Gore to have a big day.
Key Match-up on Defense vs Atlanta
AJ: Last week, the Falcons were able to exploit the Seahawks secondary for over 40 yards with less than 30 seconds on the clock to set up a game winning field goal. The reason that Matt Ryan was able to throw successfully was that the normally impressive Seattle passrush was less than stellar...and that had a lot to do with resurgent Falcons LT Sam Baker.
This week, the 49ers will need the "Smith Brothers" to push Baker and in turn pressure Matt Ryan. For the Falcons to have any measure of success against the 49er defense, they'll look to Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez...but for that to happen, they'll need to keep their QB upright. The Falcons like to slide protection right in order to extend passing plays. The 49ers will need to account for this if they hope to contain Atlanta's explosive passing attack.
That is where Baker comes in. Look for the 49ers to try overpowering him. Expect to see the 49ers employ the TE stunt on passing downs if Justin Smith's arm is strong enough for him to employ the "grab game." If the 49ers are to come away with a win on Sunday, the Smiths won't necessarily need to register sacks, but they will need to apply consistent pressure.
Diego: Let's call it what it is: Atlanta just cannot run the football with any kind of consistency. They run the football just enough to attempt to keep defenses honest, but they want to beat you with their passing game led by Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez - that is a pretty good group, and in order to be able to stop their effectiveness AJ and I agree: the 49ers need to pressure and sack Matt Ryan.
It is a widely known concept that pressuring and sacking opposing quarterbacks is a formula for success, but it is an actual fact when it comes to Ryan. First we need to give the Boston College product credit, as he surprisingly was sacked only 28 times in 16 games this season, when he dropped back to pass 615 times. That means Ryan was sacked just 1.75 times per game, and only in 4.6% of his drop backs this season. For comparison Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 51 times, was sacked 3.19 times per game and 9.2% of the times he dropped back to pass. If that wasn't impressive enough, I would argue that Ryan's numbers with regards to being sacked are actually better than what they are, because other than being sacked a season-high 7 times in a week 4 win vs the Panthers, Ryan was only sacked more than twice in just one other game (3 times in week 9 vs Dallas). If you take out the week 4 deviation, Ryan was only sacked 21 times in 15 games, or 1.4 times/game and in just 3.65% of his dropbacks, which is flat out impressive when you consider the Falcons don't boast a flashy offensive line. What does this all mean? It means Ryan, on average, drops back to pass about 38 times/game, and defenses will get to sack him only once.
Then again, as we discussed before getting into all those crazy numbers, pressuring and sacking the QB is a method for success, and that is true of Ryan, who will have the weight on his shoulders to lead his team past the 49ers. A closer look at the Falcons' three defeats this season as well as two of their lowest scoring games showed this in common: sacking and hitting Ryan. Combining the losses to Tampa Bay, Carolina, and New Orleans as well as week 6's 23-20 win over Oakland and week 9's 19-13 win over Dallas, Atlanta scored an average of 21.2 points/game - 5 points lower than their season average. In those 5 games Ryan was sacked 9 times, which accounts for 43% of the 21 sacks he suffered in the 15 games sans the sack-fest against Carolina. Furthermore, he was hit 32 times in those games, over 6 times/game, as opposed to the 40 times he was hit in the other 10 games
The 49ers pass rush sacking, hitting, and somehow disrupting Ryan consistently on Sunday will go a long way in helping them get to the Super Bowl.
- Michael Turner and Jaquizz Rogers were surprisingly effective running the football against the Seahawks. Expect the Falcons to try establishing the run to take pressure off of Matt Ryan and the Atlanta passing game.
- Vernon Davis showed signs of life against the Packers last week. Look for his involvement to grow this week against an Atlanta defense that has trouble with opposing TEs.
- Atlanta's premier offensive weapons, Roddy White and Julio Jones are big bodied, physical receivers. The 49er secondary tends to match up well against receivers like that. Look for the Niners to run a lot of 2-man defense, jamming the Falcon receivers off the line to disrupt the timing of the Atlanta passing attack.
- If you want to be thoroughly entertained, block out Mike Iupati for an offensive series or two. Over the past few weeks, Iupati has made a habit of dropping some bone jarring shots on opposing defenders.
- I thought our colleague, Oscar Aparicio, described this best a few days ago with regards to our coordinators possibly leaving for greener pastures: "The best remedy to keeping G-Ro as an OC is his own success. Teams want a staff and a coach soon. G-Go can't do that until we lose". With all head-coaching vacancies now filled the 49ers are set to keep the continuity of the coaching staff for a third straight year (insert Alex Smith joke here).
- Will this be the week rookie AJ Jenkins hauls in his first NFL catch? He played pretty well last week although he wasn't targeted at all. 49ers beat writer Kyle Bonagura pointed out that Jenkins was double-teamed on Crabtree's first touchdown against the Packers. I'm not even going to try to explain why.
- Do you know what was more underrated than Tarell Brown's performance last Saturday? Huey Lewis & the News performing the national anthem. That alone was worth the price of admission.
- A special shout-out to the 49ers parking lot security staff this past Saturday, who wouldn't let me walk into the parking lot with a 12-pack of beer as I looked to join the 49erswebzone tailgate. It made for a hell of a laugh while AJ helped me sneak the beer bottle by bottle underneath the parking lot's fence. Good times.
Championship Week Picks
Last week we witnessed what Colin Kaepernick can be when he plays near his full potential, continued to watch Peyton Manning inexplicable lose in the playoffs, saw Mat Ryan shake off his playoff demons, be attacked by them again, and shake them off just enough again at the end vs the Seahawks, and finally watched the Patriots once again take care of the Texans. This week is about punching a ticket to the Super Bowl, and the UFR crew seems confident about a HarBowl ...
Ravens at Patriots
AJ: Last year, the Ravens very nearly upset the Patriots in the AFC Championship, with a missed field goal costing them a shot at overtime. This time around, I think the tables turn. The Ravens will keep tho game close, and that will be enough to wear down the Patriots. Ravens.
Diego: The main question about Baltimore was whether Joe Flacco would be able to elevate his game in these playoffs, and he really has. Behind another solid performance from him against an average secondary, I think the Ravens pull off the upset. Ravens.
49ers at Falcons
AJ: The 49ers are favored on the road against a team seeded higher, with a better overall record. Yes...this team is that good. That stated, the Falcons are a formidable opponent, capable of stretching the field with a very dynamic passing attack. This week, the Falcons will try stretching the field against a very good defense...and fail. The 49ers just matchup too well. Pound for pound, player for player, they're the better team. 49ers.
Diego: Look for San Francisco to win on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Justin Smith showed last week he's able to play at a high level even while battling with his triceps injury, and Atlanta's biggest difference maker, John Abraham, has been unable to be as effective while playing through injury himself. So long as the 49ers execute ... 49ers.
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