The Atlanta Falcons are going to need to play a complete game on defense in order to stop the new-look San Francisco 49ers offense.
They are widely considered as underdogs even though they are the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
In order to beat the Niners they will have to contain second-year QB Colin Kaepernick and find a way to beat the disciplined and physical 49ers defense.
Here are a couple of key situations and matchups Atlanta must win and deliver on in order to reach its second Super Bowl berth in the 47-year history of its franchise.
John Abraham Must Get Pressure on Colin Kaepernick
The Atlanta Falcons were poor pass rushers in 2012, recording just 29 sacks on the season, despite having one of the better edge rushers in John Abraham. That’s good enough for second-to-last in the league.
Colin Kaepernick is a young quarterback who has found himself in a groove, using his legs to open up defenses and give him more time in the pocket. The added threat of him taking off at any given moment means the Falcons must either spy him by keeping a defender from rushing, or by making sure they contain the edges by not sending bull rushes.
Whoever is spying Kaepernick, it shouldn’t be Abraham. After all, his team-high 10 sacks and seven pass deflections made him the top pass rusher for the team all season.
Stay Disciplined on Read Options
Colin Kaepernick doesn’t typically run the football very much each week. He isn’t a “primary back” in San Francisco’s offense. However, he looked that way last week in the Niners win over Green Bay. The Packers struggle to defend the run and Jim Harbaugh took it to them on the ground.
Kaepernick ran the ball a season-high 16 times as the team ran 43 times overall. That’s nearly as much as he ran in the previous three games combined.
Keeping containment on the QB in the backfield will be huge for the Falcons defense. Like the Packers, San Francisco will run the ball all day on Atlanta if it fails to account for both the QB and the RB out of the backfield.
The Falcons have struggled mightily against mobile quarterbacks this season, too. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson both have good success both passing and running against them.
Letting Kaepernick become the latest to torch their poor rush defense will put an end to a season that saw their first playoff win of the Matt Ryan era.
It is Imperative Tony Gonzalez Has a Big Game
Don’t forget Julio Jones and Roddy White, they will need to get theirs too. But one of the keys for Ryan is going to be his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and his veteran tight end better be ready for a huge game.
Gonzalez recorded his first playoff win in his 16-year career last weekend against the Seattle Seahawks.
He’ll need to step up and beat the tough coverage of the 49ers in order for Atlanta to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998—their franchises only attempt to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Gonzalez will be up against a tough secondary and an even tougher pass rush. He'll be asked to chip on edge rushers and still get open down the field.