As I did a week ago in preparation for the Seattle Seahawks matchup, I went back and watched several San Francisco 49ers games over the past two days. I really wanted to take a more in-depth look at the team that most of the football-watching world feels will be the NFC representative in this year’s Super Bowl XLVII.
For much of this year I have considered the 49ers to be the premier team in the NFC, even ahead of my beloved Falcons. And from watching the film, my opinion has not changed.
Yes, I’m saying the 49ers are a better team than the Falcons. But that is not the same as saying the 49ers will be a better team on Sunday, nor is it is saying they will beat the Falcons. The 49ers are a team that are very similar to the Seahawks, except probably better in a lot of the same areas. The Falcons playing Seattle last week was probably the best possible preparation for this game as they won’t have to drastically change their gameplan from a week ago due to many of those similarities between the two teams. But the 49ers do present a number of interesting challenges for the Falcons.
Much has been made about Colin Kaepernick and the read-option as he absolutely ran circles around Green Bay’s defense last week. Although I think as it applies this week, it has been much ado about nothing. This will not be the Falcons first rodeo when it comes to the read-option, unlike the Packers. The Falcons have now faced Cam Newton twice, Robert Griffin, and last week saw Russell Wilson. The Panthers, Redskins, and Seahawks did not appear on the Packers schedule this year. They were ill-prepared for what Kaepernick and that play could do against them. The Falcons will have no such excuses. Only the Dallas Cowboys have played as many games (5) against read-option teams as the Falcons. The Falcons haven’t shut down the read-option, but with the stakes this high it would be a major surprise if it’s a deciding factor in the game as it was a week ago against Green Bay.
Kaepernick is a dangerous quarterback because he specializes in big plays. He is one of the league’s best vertical passers, completing a league-high 60% of throws over twenty yards, and anybody that saw only the highlights of last week’s game knows how deadly he can be with his legs.
That is where he is most dangerous, with his legs. He is blessed with deceptive speed due to his long strides. If he can get to a corner, your defense is going to be in trouble because he’s going to run right by you. Often times watching the 49ers on tape, he’s 10 or 15 yards downfield before the defense can even react to him. The Falcons employed a lot of zone against the Seahawks last week due to the fact that they wanted most of their defenders to keep their eyes on Russell Wilson, to try and defend against his scrambling ability. Wilson presented similar challenges, but not all running quarterbacks are built the same.
Due to Wilson’s shorter stature, he struggled throwing from the pocket. It was important for the Falcons defense to try and contain him to the pocket. That is really not the same challenge that Kaepernick presents. If you confine him to the pocket, he’s going to pick you apart because that is not where he struggles. He’s very tall and has no issues locating throwing lanes unlike Wilson. Surprisingly, getting Kaepernick outside the pocket seemed to work well for defenses from what I saw on tape. His shoddy footwork and mechanics causes him to struggle to reset his feet and square his shoulders when throwing on the run, resulting in a lot of off-target passes. So there’s a bit of a risk-reward. If you can flush him, it can make him into a much less efficient passer, but also it increases the risk he gets to the outside and uses his legs for a big gain.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Nolan tries to deal with that. I don’t think you can really mush rush Kaepernick quite like you could with Wilson. While you definitely don’t want to get out of your lanes with him as he can easily step up and run for big yardage, I do think you want to make a much more concerted effort to get pressure on him. Against the Rams and Seahawks, it seemed like edge pressure really gave him fits at times. John Abraham is sporting a bum ankle, and there’s no doubt that he will play in this game. But there’s also no doubt that he won’t be at full strength. Basically you’re crossing your fingers at this point that Abe pulls a gutsy performance and manages to make an impact in this game basically on one leg.
As mentioned before, Kaepernick presents a second challenge: his vertical passing ability. He has receivers that can win on the outside. Vernon Davis is probably the league’s most dangerous vertical seam tight end and presents a nearly impossible one-on-one matchup for any safety or linebacker. The Falcons have struggled mightily this season trying to cover tight ends, as Zach Miller worked them over last week just as easily as Jimmy Graham and Dallas Clark, among others have done this season. Davis presents many of the same unique matchup issues that Graham does due to his speed, size, and athleticism. The positive for the Falcons defense however is that Kaepernick’s rapport with Davis could be considered average at best. Since catching 6 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in their Week 11 win over the Chicago Bears, Davis has combined for 7 catches for 105 yards over the past seven games. He’s been targeted 16 times in that span, meaning that Kaepernick is only completing about 44% of his passes to Davis. Compare that to Davis’ first 7 games of the year where Alex Smith was the primary quarterback, where Davis caught 69% of his 36 targets. On one hand, that’s a positive since Davis is not nearly as fearsome with Kaepernick under center as he could be. But on the other hand, many of those yards he has managed to get with Kaepernick have come on big plays, including a 44-yarder against the Packers a week ago on his lone catch of the game. So even while Kaepernick only completed 1 of 5 passes to Davis as he did a week ago, it’s liable to go for a big gain if/when he does. If the Falcons had no issues covering tight ends, this might not be a big deal. But it’s a situation that if the 49ers can just exploit once or twice, it can make a huge difference in this weekend’s game.
You also have similar issues with Randy Moss. Moss isn’t the player he once was, nor is he a major player in the 49ers passing game. But he still is able to make plays down the field, and giving up chunks of yards at a time is not a recipe for success for the Falcons defense.
The main target of Kaepernick is Michael Crabtree. Crabtree has blossomed since Kaepernick has taken over. Over the first 8 weeks of the season with Smith under center, Crabtree caught 25 passes for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns. Over the past 8 games with Kaepernick, he has combined for 55 catches for 784 yards and 7 touchdowns. You extrapolate that over a 16-game season and you have numbers on par with Brandon Marshall, and second only to Calvin Johnson this season. A big part of that has been his usage. Over the first 8 games with Smith, Crabtree was targeted about 4.75 times per game. Over the past 8, that has increased to 10.38. A lot of that has come on shallow crossing routes that are designed to get Crabtree in space as a runner. While Crabtree may not fit the classic definition of a burner, he is a natural runner with the ball in his hands. Along with Julio Jones he was the only receiver this year that caught over 75 passes and average at least 6 yards after catch per reception (per Pro Football Focus). If the Falcons choose to utilize a lot of man coverage, this could spell some trouble as it has been a very effective way of moving the ball.
Containing Crabtree will be a key part of this game because Kaepernick is a much less effective passer when he’s not throwing the ball to him. Over the pass six games, Kaepernick has completed 49 of 58 passes (84.5%) for 757 yards and 6 touchdowns for a near-perfect passer rating of 153.2. To all of his other receivers, he has completed 56 of 117 passes (47.9%) for 640 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions for a passer rating of 62.6 over that same span. And before anybody proclaims that Ryan would similarly look as bad without his top option, you’d be surprised to discover that Ryan is fairly consistent regardless of his target over the past six games:
Ryan's Passing by TargetMatt Ryan's passing numbers to specific targets (from Weeks 13-19)
But all of that said, the primary weapon of the 49ers offense is their running game which is arguably the league’s best. Frank Gore forms the core of their offense. Down the stretch now LaMichael James has picked up the slack left over due to the injury to Kendall Hunter, giving them a very effective 1-2 punch. The basis of their running game is their offensive line. They are big, powerful, and physical. Mike Iupati and Alex Boone are excellent at moving defenders off the ball between the tackles. Joe Staley and Anthony Davis have been excellent getting push and sealing the edge so that their backs can get to the corner on sweeps.
The Falcons did an excellent job last week of bottling up Marshawn Lynch. They will have to do an equally effective job this week. But that will be made harder due to the fact that the 49ers offensive line is bigger, burlier, and has made it a habit of pushing teams around. It’s not the breakaway runs that kill with the 49ers, it’s the fact that O-line is capable of getting Gore & Co. 4 to 6 yards with nearly every touch. Their offense is able to stay on schedule due to the ground game, and that puts a lot less pressure on Kaepernick to be your standard dropback quarterback. They run a lot of play-action off it, which then gives Kaepernick those opportunities to hit on those vertical throws.
Like it was against Seahawks, the Falcons’ first priority will be slowing down that ground game. And as it was a week ago, the Falcons will be greatly aided if the offense can get out to a fast start. The Falcons defense is likely to wear down if they can’t find a way to eliminate the 49ers ground attack as early as possible. While the Falcons have some solid run defenders up front, they aren’t built to slug it out with a group like the 49ers have for four quarters.
There is a good chance that much-needed lead could occur. The Falcons proved a week ago that they have the weapons on the outside to win against any secondary. The Seahawks sported the “Legion of Boom” a unit that was widely hailed as the best secondary in the NFL. But Matt Ryan and the Falcons had little issue moving the ball against them. The 49ers secondary is much weaker in comparison. While Tarell Brown has had a good season in San Francisco, Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver really don’t stand much of a chance against the likes of Julio Jones and Roddy White.
But the key will be protecting Ryan in order to give him the time to make the necessary throws. That was no issue against Seattle with their top pass rusher Chris Clemons out of the lineup. The Falcons won’t have such luck this week as Justin Smith and Aldon Smith will suit up. But the positive is that the Smiths haven’t played great down the stretch. Justin is not the pass rusher he once was. And Aldon hasn’t been the same since Justin injured his triceps in Week 15 against the New England Patriots. But it’s still not going to be a walk in the park for Sam Baker and Justin Blalock as they will be tasked to deal with the pair of Smiths. Baker is having his best season as a Falcon, and that will have to continue this week as he is primarily tasked with making Aldon a non-factor. One of the reasons why the 49ers beat the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 15 is because Aldon Smith made a bunch of big plays in that game and was harassing Tom Brady all game. Justin Smith is not a dominant pass rusher as age and injury are catching up to him. But what he still remains exceedingly good at is defending the run. He’s almost impossible to block one on one even for the best left guards in the league. Blalock has definitely not played at that level in 2012, but this week would be an excellent time for him to justify that large contract he signed 18 months ago that made him one of the most highly-paid guards in the league. If he can create push up front against Smith, it can greatly aid the Falcons in finding that balance offensively that they had against Seattle.
Again, I think as with against the Seahawks, the Falcons need to try and attack the edges of the 49er defense on the ground. Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers looked very good last week, and the hope is that was not a one-game aberration against a beat up and declining Seahawk run defense. They will again be tested this week against the 49ers front to prove if the renewed ability of the Falcons ground attack is “for real.” But one of the reasons why the 49ers run defense is so good is because of their outstanding inside linebacker play. Even if you can create a hole and your running back can get through it, he’s often going to meet a stone wall that carries the names Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman before reaching the second level. The big plays that came a week ago against the Seahawks from Turner and Rodgers are probably not going to come with Willis and Bowman patrolling the middle. Successful running against the 49ers is often considered to be 3 and 4-yard gains due to their presences.
An interesting matchup for the Falcons offense is going to be tight end Tony Gonzalez against Bowman and Willis. The 49ers have so much faith in their pair of linebackers that they will often line them up against slot receivers and opposing tight ends one-on-one. And while they can get beat, it’s rarely been to a significant degree this season. I think Gonzo has the capacity to catch a lot of balls, but it may be a lot of short 6 to 8-yard plays that can help move the chains. On third downs, it will be critical for him to find ways to win in traffic against the likes of Willis and Bowman.
I think the key for the Falcons will be a fast start. Having home field is very beneficial to that, and it’s one of the reasons why I think people are sleeping much too much on the Falcons. Home field advantage is evidenced primarily in the first quarter of games (hat tip to Code and Football for the link). With an early lead the 49ers primary offensive weapon, their running game, is taken out of the game. That makes them one-dimensional and makes them play a style of football that they don’t want to play. And while like Seattle, the 49ers are still dangerous even if they become a one-dimensional pass-happy attack, it is not what they do best. And at that point, the 49ers are no longer a better team than the Falcons. And that becomes the point where the Falcons win.