Cornerback Chris Culliver and strong safety Donte Whitner said the 49ers had trouble getting their hands on the receivers early in the game. The Falcons used those bunch formations with tighter splits to take San Francisco out of its press-coverage techniques, the 49ers theorized.
"Receivers know the defensive coaches tell the players not to press if they get tight splits because there is so much room to the sideline," Whitner said. "So our corners had to play off and that is why they did that. It was just a cat-and-mouse game until we figured them out."
The 49ers had trouble getting to their second and third coverage calls in part because they weren't initially sure which routes the Falcons were running from those bunch formations.
"When we make those secondary calls, we are zoning it off," Whitner said, "so you zone it off until a man comes into your area, and then you lock on."
There were some tense moments in the first half as Ryan conducted target practice.
"It gets heated, but we got inside [at halftime] everything was cool," Culliver said. "We talked about what we were going to do when we see those formations. Once you start seeing stuff and start playing the game, you start jumping stuff."
That's what Culliver did when he picked off Ryan at the San Francisco 38-yard line with 7:46 remaining in the third quarter. The 49ers trailed 24-21 at the time and hadn't been able to stop the Falcons to that point in the game.
There was some thought that Falcons receiver Roddy White had slipped on the play, but that wasn't how Culliver saw things.
"Every time Ryan throws the ball, he throws toward the ground where nobody can get it but the receiver," Culliver said. "But I seen it and ran inside on it. A lot of people thought outside, but I ran inside on that and he tried to go down to it, but I got over him and got the pick."
The 49ers' pass rush finally got going late in the game, putting Ryan under duress on six of the quarterback's final 12 drop backs once San Francisco took its first lead 28-24 on Gore's 9-yard run with 8:23 remaining. The 49ers had put Ryan under duress only three times previously on 32 drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Despite the late push, the 49ers remained in danger until linebacker NaVorro Bowman blanketed White over the middle and broke up Ryan's fourth-down pass.