We’ll get the chance to see the Atlanta Falcons tonight against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night football.
I don’t have particularly high hopes for the Falcons, although the last time I expected them to get blown out was in Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints. During that week, the Falcons had the factors of playing at home and against a familiar opponent in their favor. They will be in a hostile environment tonight against the San Francisco 49ers, particularly since it will be the final home game at Candlestick Park, assuming the 49ers and the other NFC wildcard team don’t make improbably deep playoff runs. And the familiarity of the 49ers just isn’t that strong. It was roughly 11 months ago that the two teams squared off in the NFC Championship game, so the Falcons won’t have to clean too much dust off their game plan to try and get an accurate read on the 49ers.
The 49ers since then haven’t changed that much. They are still an offense that is predicated on the run game and the vertical passing attack. But they aren’t as effective in either area this year as they were a year ago.
They were among the league’s best rushing team a year ago, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. They ran the ball on about 50.8 percent of their offensive plays in 2012. This year, their yards per carry has fallen to a much more mundane 4.2 yards per carry. They are running the ball more however, up to 53.3 percent.
That increase in runs is largely due to their inability to generate as many big plays in the passing game as they did a year ago. Colin Kaepernick led the league with a ridiculous 60.6 percent completion rate on passes of 20 or more yards (per Pro Football Focus). He’s still near the top of the league this year, but it’s down to a much more human 46 percent completion rate on those deep passes. Despite only starting roughly half the season, Kaepernick completed 19 of those 20-plus yard throws last year for a total of 595 yards. This year in nearly twice the playing time, he’s completed 19 for 632 yards. So in one sense, he’s been half as effective throwing deep.
Much of that centers on the lack of reliable weapons that Kaepernick has been asked to throw with Michael Crabtree being injured for most the year. In fact, no 49ers receiver besides Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Vance McDonald have caught deep passes from Kaepernick this year. Boldin is certainly not a deep threat by nature, and McDonald is not quite as adept as Delanie Walker was a year ago. Last year, players like Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, and Kyle Williams all contributed there as well as Crabtree.
But will any of this matter against the Falcons? Probably not. The Falcons run defense is among the weakest in the league, and the 49ers absolutely dominated the Falcons in the trenches in last year’s NFC title game. With the Falcons run defense giving up 100 or more yards in 11 straight games, it is doubtful that streak is snapped this week.
And with no pass rush, Kaepernick should have plenty of time to find deep targets. The Falcons corners have arguably been the strength of their defense throughout this year, but they cannot be expected to cover forever.
And throw in the fact that the Falcons offense has been mostly inept this year when it comes to scoring points, all the factors seem to be in the 49ers favor.
The Falcons nearly beat the 49ers 11 months ago because they got off to a very fast start with Julio Jones having one of the best games we’ve ever seen from a Falcons receiver. But the Falcons offense has morphed into a very conservative unit in the months since, thanks to Jones being sidelined with an injury, and the conservative game-planning from the coaching staff. It’s doubtful the Falcons get off to such a fast start given those circumstances, and without it, there isn’t much hope for a competitive game.
Frankly, I’m suspecting this game to be the ugliest loss of the season for the Falcons.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
The biggest takeaway I had from Sunday’s slate of games was involving the controversial call in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Green Bay Packers game, involving the change of possession on the blocked field goal.
I understand why the officials called the play the way they did. But the fact that the change of possession couldn’t be reviewed because it was ruled on the field that Ryan Clark had not recovered the ball is just silly. If all touchdowns and turnovers are reviewable, then how come a play like that isn’t reviewable?
The competition committee is going to have a lot of things to consider this offseason as a lot of the officiating decisions this year have been controversial.
Two of the bigger considerations will revolve around what plays are reviewable, and whether or not the league should allow for all challenges and calls to be reviewed in a central location, such as the league office in New York.
I really believe that they should expand what plays can be challenged and reviewed. The aforementioned play involving Clark should just automatically be reviewed. Any play that potentially involves a change of possession should be reviewed, whether or not the initial call on the field indicates there was. I also think coaches should be allowed to challenge a few more calls.
One of those includes the personal foul calls on helmet-to-helmet hits. I generally think most penalties shouldn’t be challengeable, but that is one where I think the benefit of replay should be allowed. How many times over the years have we seen times where a defender lowered his shoulder into a ballcarrier or receiver, but because of the impact of the hit, a flag was thrown? Dozens, if not hundreds. These 15-yard penalties can have dramatic impacts on the games in which they occur. Coaches should be able to challenge these and it would add another strategic element of the game due to the limited number of challenges coaches already possess.
I also believe that reviews should also be centrally located in order to streamline the process and not have the element of human error fluctuating from game to game and crew to crew. This would potentially speed up the reviewing process because we won’t have time to waste as refs run to the sideline and go under the hood.
Ultimately I’m not sure the league will make these changes for next season. I’m sure they’ll cite the slippery slope as the reason against dramatic changes to which plays can be reviewed. That argument will rest on the fact that once more officiating calls can be reviewed, how long before every call is reviewed? I understand that, but I think we need to see more plays being eligible to be challenged. I agree that most things must still be in the officials’ hands. Perhaps a generation from now, we’ll take the human error element out of the game with robots and microchips. But we haven’t reached that point yet, and despite the criticism, the overall quality of officiating at the NFL level is excellent. If you’ve watched college football in the days where all plays are reviewable, it has castrated their officials. They call the game so as to not prevent it from being reviewed as opposed to trying to make the right call in real time. For the NFL purposes, these changes shouldn’t affect how games and plays are called. Officials should be able to call it exactly the same as they currently are. It would just mean that there are more opportunities for them to correct their mistakes if made.
And the argument against plays being reviewed in a central location is mainly logistical. What happens if there is a power outage or some other technological breakdown that severs the link between the game site and the central office? Well, that can be rather easily be solved if they still have the equipment on hand at the individual games to review them, but only using them in an emergency.
The other argument against it, is that the coaches like to talk directly to the official making the call, face-to-face. I get that as well. That could be worked around if you could set up tablets or some form of satellite communication with the central office. But that sounds complicated and expensive. Instead, you might just have a radio link between the officials on the field and the central office. But at the end of the day, even without that face-to-face, I think NFL coaches should accept a trade-off that meant that there were more correct calls and a quicker pace to the flow of the game. And if they can’t, they’d just have to bite the bullet and accept that it simply makes the game better even if it doesn’t give them quite as much peace of mind.