We just went through the things that the Atlanta Falcons need to do offensively to move the ball and score on one of the best defenses in the NFL. Now it’s time for what the Falcons need to do defensively to stop the 49ers offense, a task the Packers didn’t respond well to in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Niners really like to run the ball with several different options as to who runs. They really like to run out of the pistol formation. That’s where the quarterback, Colin Kaepernick in this case, lines up in basically the shotgun, with a runningback lined up behind him. It allows for tremendous threat of the run, in addition to giving the quarterback additional time in the pocket if he chooses to pass. It’s truly a deadly formation, especially with Kaepernick running it.
So how do the Falcons stop the dive, the various trap plays, and the read option runs that San Francisco employs? By setting the edge to take away the perimeter runs, and by maintaining proper lane defense. Against the best run teams, it’s important that the defensive end to the run side of the play not allow the runningback around him to the outside. He has to set that edge, so that the back (whether it be Frank Gore or Kaepernick) can’t get to the perimeter where they are less likely to be tackled. At the same time, the defensive end can’t simply allow himself to be pushed to the outside, otherwise it will allow a large hole to the inside for the runningback to hit. In short, the defensive end needs to be quick enough to prevent the run around him, but strong enough to not let himself lose any ground.
That’s going to be difficult against an offensive line as good as the Niners have. They are bruising on the inside, outstanding at the tackle positions, and even their tight ends and receivers are very good blocking for the run. The Falcons face a difficult task in even slowing down the run, let alone stopping it. If they can hold the 49ers offense to 2 yards per carry the way they did against Seattle, that will only stand to help them.
Another huge thing is for the Atlanta linebackers to properly diagnose run very early, so they can either stay back in coverage, or immediately help against the run. If the Falcons aren’t initially successful against the run, the linebackers will be forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and bringing them up to play the run makes the intermediate passing game a liability. Look at what Seattle did. They got the Falcons linebackers to play up, and then attacked the middle of the field with the tight end. San Fran has outstanding tight ends in Delanie Walker and Vernon Daivs, two guys who can beat you deep, in addition to completely controlling the middle of the field. Defending the intermediate passing game will be critical for the Falcons.
It’s also important that Atlanta generate some sort of pass rush against Kaepernick. They didn’t do a good job of that against Seattle, so when they did get some pressure, it left a void in the defense, one that Russell Wilson exploited with his legs. Kaepernick is possibly more explosive on the ground, so perhaps the best thing for the Falcons is to keep Colin in the pocket and force him to throw the ball. Don’t let him run, and rush him a little up the middle with Jonathan Babineaux. If the Falcons secondary plays the way they have all year long, especially from the safety positions, they should be able to play some games in coverage with the Niners quarterback, something that has garnered many turnovers for the Falcons in the 2012 season.
San Francisco is a physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth sort of team, but they have an explosive element in Kaepernick, Frank Gore, and their great tight ends. It’s a tall, tall order for Atlanta to stop, especially with John Abraham dealing with an ailing ankle. It will be interesting to see what the Falcons gameplan is, and whether or not they are able to execute it properly.