Can the Atlanta Falcons Shut Down a Red Hot Colin Kaepernick?

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJanuary 15, 2013

As the Atlanta Falcons prepare to host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might as well haul a cot into his office.

He's probably going to be sleeping there trying to figure out a way to shut down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who just gashed the Green Bay Packers for an NFL-record 181 rushing yards and four touchdowns (two passing) en route to racking up over 450 total yards in a 45-31 win.

For his part, Nolan's head coach, Mike Smith, is well aware that the Falcons are going to have their hands full, as he told Jim Corbett of USA Today:

You've got to have vision on defense. You can't play match coverages or man-to-man, because when he gets into the secondary, he's a guy who can go the distance. He outran a number of fast players in the ballgame Saturday night.

The problem for the Falcons is that they have struggled this season against mobile quarterbacks, including last week against the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson nearly matched Kaepernick's gaudy numbers, throwing for 385 yards and rushing for 60 more (tops for Seattle last week) while scoring three total touchdowns and leading a furious second-half rally that came up just short.

The Falcons defense also struggled in a December 9 loss to the Carolina Panthers, allowing quarterback Cam Newton to throw for 287 yards and run for 116, including a 72-yard scoring scamper.

Contrast that play with Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown run and you'll see an alarming similarity.

On both plays, the defense bit on the "fake" to the tailback, which opened things up for the quarterback. That play is the staple of the read-option offense that the 49ers and, to a lesser extent, the Panthers employ. If the backside end stays home, give it to the running back. If he bites, it's off to the races.

The Falcons can't allow themselves to get suckered in again.

The Atlanta defense is also going to have to do a much better job of pressuring the quarterback than they have this season. Atlanta ranked 28th in the NFL with 29 sacks in 2012, and if the team allows Kaepernick to just stand back there all day or scramble around, coverage is bound to break down.

However, that's going to be doubly difficult with defensive end John Abraham, who led the team with 10 sacks, dinged up.

The 34-year-old missed the entire second half of the win over Seattle after he aggravated his ankle injury, and that just so happened to coincide with when the Seahawks started marching up and down the field.

Abraham, for his part, told ESPN that he'll definitely play against San Francisco, stating, "You can't keep me out of that game."

The problem is, were the ankle not a fairly serious issue, then by the same token as the above quote, one would've expected Abraham to re-enter last week's game once the Seahawks started piling up scores. If he's more hurt than he's letting on, a one-legged Abraham leaves the Falcons woefully thin so far as pass-rushers go.

Even if they can get a fairly effective Abraham on the field, the Falcons can't just pin their ears back and get after Kaepernick. Players need to stay in their lanes and make sure that the edge is set, because if you let Kaepernick get around the edge, you may not see him again until he's kissing his bicep in the end zone.

The Falcons will no doubt look to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16 as a blueprint to stop Kaepernick.

In that game, in which Kaepernick appeared rattled at times by the raucous crowd in Seattle, the Seahawks maintained their containment. While they managed only one sack on the night, they also limited Kaepernick to only 31 yards on seven carries, along with 244 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception, in a 42-13 blowout.

It's that crowd that may be Atlanta's secret weapon. Granted, the Georgia Dome likely won't be as loud as CenturyLink Field (no stadium is), but it is an indoor venue and Kaepernick is a second-year pro making his first road playoff start.

If that crowd can rattle Kaepernick, if Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense can put pressure on San Francisco to match scores and if the Falcons can get just enough pressure to force a mistake or two, then the Falcons can pull out the win and move on to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII.

However, if the Falcons come out on Sunday and play defense like they have for the most part against mobile quarterbacks this year, then the only way that John Abraham and the rest of the Falcons will get to see the big game is on TV.

Just like the rest of us.