Every week, the Atlanta Falcons have a plan of attack. They watch film, view the strengths and weaknesses of opponents, and then create a game-plan that they feel will be successful against the defense they’re facing. That may change in game, as things progress and either are successful or unsuccessful, but there’s clearly a plan. Here are the things Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan will likely be looking for if they are to be successful against San Francisco in the NFC Championship game.
Tony Gonzalez must continue to control the middle of the field. He’s the best in the league at gaining separation through route running, and setting up the defender. Just look at what he’s done in critical situations and the red-zone for the Falcons. He always finds a way to set up the defender, finds the sticks to make the break on his route, runs an extremely crisp routes, is on the same page as Matt Ryan, and makes the catch with his hands. There are few defenders in the league that can consistently cover him. He may not win many footraces, but he’s one of the smartest players in the league, and the best tight end ever.
Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be asked to cover Gonzalez. Tony can, and, more times than not, will win these matchups, but if there are two linebackers who matchup fairly well with him, its the 49ers pair. Willis is solid in coverage, but he really stands out in playing the run and being a sure tackler. Bowman, on the other hand, can really do it all, and is outstanding in coverage. He’s got great hands to boot. Gonzalez will have to beat these linebackers. Here’s to hoping that age and wisdom will control the middle of the field.
That’s the first place to start, as Ryan has to have an outlet who can get open, and do so quickly. But it will make his job much, much easier if he has time to throw in the pocket. Over the course of the 2012 season, the 49ers were outstanding at rushing the passer. There’s nothing to say they won’t be in the Championship game as well, but against Green Bay and in the last three games of the regular season, the Niners just haven’t been great. OLB Aldon Smith was extremely good the first 13 games of the season, registering 19.5 sacks, and looking like he was certainly going to break Michael Strahan’s single season sack record. He didn’t and it happened in large part due to one of his fellow defenders up front losing a little something.
Defensive end Justin Smith suffered a torn triceps tendon, and hasn’t been quite the dominant force up front that the 49ers need him to be. When Justin is being disruptive up front, Aldon is free to wreak havoc on the QB. When he’s not, the Niners defense can still be effective at playing contain and setting the edge, but they just haven’t been getting to the quarterback.
This is the most critical thing for the Falcons all season long. They must protect Matt Ryan in the pocket. They are going to have to win matchups against the Smith brothers. That means that a Justin Blalock/Todd McClure doubleteam is going to have to hold his own against Justin, so that Sam Baker and a running back can keep Aldon off of Matt Ryan. I’m not saying it will happen, but due to Justin Smith’s injury, it makes things much easier for the Falcons offensive line, specifically from a pass-protection standpoint. They must protect Matt Ryan from the Smith ‘Brothers’.
It’s also critical that the Falcons provide the threat of a run game. That’s what I wanted them to do against Seattle, and through great interior blocking, the Falcons were able to do more than just provide the threat of a run. They actually ran the heck out of the ball. I don’t anticipate that happening against San Francisco, probably the best run stuffing defense in the league. Jacquizz is going to have to continue to find cutback lanes, squeak through holes, and break through arm tackles. By the same tackle, Michael Turner is going to have to get his full head of steam going early and become the sledgehammer that he can be. He can’t have runs of no gain on first down, or any down for that matter. The Falcons can’t put themselves in poor down and distance situations, especially with the run. Don’t expect many 30 yard gains on the ground.
There’s one final element that has to come together. That’s Roddy White and Julio Jones getting open against the 49ers secondary. The San Fran corners aren’t as physical as Seattle’s and aren’t quite as good in coverage, but don’t get me wrong, they’re still very good. They are only made better by an outstanding pass-rush. It’s important for the Falcons o-line to protect to give time for the Falcons receivers to get open. But at the same time, the faster that Jones and White get open, the less time the line will have to block. Jones and White can handle the physicality of any secondary in the league, of that I’m sure. But they really have to run crisp routes and do a good job of setting up their breaks to beat the San Fran secondary. It’s the matchup I’m least concerned with winning, but in the end it’s still a critical matchup.
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons offense operates against the 49ers defense. The Niners are very good, but they have given up lots of points at times. Just see their Week 6 performance against New York (26 points), New England in Week 15 (34 points), and Seattle in Week 16 (42 points). I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see the Falcons put up 30 points on the 49ers, especially after seeing them just score 30 against Seattle, another top-5 defense in the NFL.