49ers vs. Falcons: 10 Keys to the Game for Atlanta
It's now time for the Falcons to face their next challenge: the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
The 49ers may appear to be an unstoppable foe, what with boasting a quarterback who can run with the gazelles and has a cannon for an arm, and a smash-mouth defense that dominated nearly all statistical categories.
But they can be defeated.
Here are the Falcons' 10 keys to doing so in this Sunday's game.
10. The Role Players Must Step Up
Atlanta's reserve players have been just as important to the team's success this season as the star players have been.
Last week alone, backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers had just 10 carries. But he gained 64 yards, including a thunderous 45-yard scamper.
Backup tight end Chase Coffman caught just one pass, but it was a clutch 16-yard reception down the sideline.
Backup running back Jason Snelling touched the ball just once, but it was a five-yard touchdown catch and run.
When the Seahawks keyed in on the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner last Sunday, the door opened for some of Atlanta's lesser-known players to step into the spotlight.
Chances are the 49ers will do the same.
If that happens, it'll be up to those reserve players to deliver.
9. Don't Sacrifice the Sure Tackle for the Big Hit
The 49ers are a physical team.
That doesn't mean the Falcons need to be one too.
The Falcons have gotten to the NFC Championship game with their finesse, favoring innovative scheming over pure power.
Now is not the time to leave all of that aside and go for the big hit instead of the sure tackle—they've missed enough tackles as it is this season—especially not if the idea is to "make a statement" or show the 49ers they've "come to play."
The way the Falcons can make a statement is by scoring. The way they can show they've come to play is by getting the defense off the field on third down.
The Falcons have thrived on playing smart all season long. There's no reason to believe they can't win Sunday doing the same.
8. Don't Force the Play
The playoffs are a time for aggression.
But aggression is perhaps most effective when applied in moderation.
That wasn't the case last week, when quarterback Matt Ryan threw two interceptions as a result of trying to force the ball downfield—the first a throw in traffic that kept the Falcons from taking advantage of excellent field position, and the second a fourth-quarter pass in double coverage that allowed the Seahawks to get right back in the game.
As important as it is for the Falcons to take their shots deep, it's equally as important they don't try to force it.
The turnover battle will be a big one with both teams having offenses able to score from anywhere on the field. Winning that battle can only help the Falcons, and that can only come if they protect the ball.
7. Force Kaepernick to Pass
The Falcons have forced opposing defenses to pick their poison when it comes to choosing who among Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to cover.
This weekend, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be picking his own poison: take away dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick's legs or his arm?
He'd be wise to choose the former.
The reason is simple: The Falcons are better defending the pass than they are the run. The 49ers thrive on their running game and pass only when needed.
The second half of last week's game aside, Nolan's disguised coverages and talented secondary have repeatedly forced opposing quarterbacks into states of utter confusion, leading the likes of Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees to throw interceptions left and right.
They can force Kaepernick to do the same, but that will only come if he throws the ball, and that can only happen if he stays in the pocket.
6. Get into a Rhythm Early
To force Kaepernick to pass, the Falcons must first ensure they establish a big lead.
The 49ers have too many weapons, too many ways they can win, for the Falcons to risk being down early.
That means they'd be better off making sure they move the chains before they start thinking about going for it all every play.
To move those chains, the Falcons need to establish a ground game and a quick-passing attack right off the bat. That opens up possibilities for play-action and deep passes later.
It's the kind of approach that led to victory over the Seahawks last week, and one that can be just as effective against the 49ers this weekend.
5. Slow Down San Francisco's Pass Rush
The Falcons won't be able to dink and dunk up and down the field forever.
At some point, Ryan will need to use his downfield threats, White and Jones.
And that can only come if the Falcons are able to slow down San Francisco's relentless pass rush and give Ryan the time he needs to set up in the pocket.
The way to do that is simple: Screens, screens and more screens.
The Falcons have been one of the most successful teams when it comes to screen plays, with Ryan completing 62-of-69 passes for 495 yards and six touchdowns in such instances this past season.
It'll only take one successful screen pass to force the likes of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald from thinking twice about charging hard on Ryan. And that will give Ryan just enough time to find his receivers deep down the field on subsequent drop-backs.
4. A Healthy John Abraham
The Falcons need John Abraham.
Their star pass-rusher played just 15 snaps in last weekend's game, according to ESPN.
Those who watched the game saw the result: Endless time for Russell Wilson in the pocket.
Abraham is the Falcons' only pass-rusher who can consistently get pressure on the quarterback as well as command double-teams to allow the likes of Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters a better chance at reaching the quarterback.
Wilson made the most of Abraham's absence to torch the Falcons for 385 yards passing and two touchdowns, breaking the postseason passing yard record by a rookie in the process.
If Abraham isn't ready to go against the 49ers this Sunday, that new record might not last more than a week.
3. Stay Disciplined
If the Falcons want to keep this slide's image from being a frequent one at the Georgia Dome Sunday, they'll need to stay disciplined on defense.
The Green Bay Packers didn't, trying too hard to make a play instead of staying true to their assignments. That's why they could only watch as Kaepernick burned them for a playoff-record 181 rushing yards last Sunday.
The Falcons can't make the same mistake.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will need to make sure his defenders remember to maintain their gap assignments and make the sure tackle when the ball-carrier comes their way.
The Falcons failed to accomplish those two things in their three losses of the season. Forgetting those key tasks could lead this contest to get out of hand quickly, with the 49ers' one-two punch of Kaepernick's speed and running back Frank Gore's power.
2. Don't Forget About Vernon Davis
Atlanta has been victimized by big plays from opposing tight ends this season, most notably allowing the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham a combined 11 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns in two games against them. The Falcons also gave up eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown to Seahawks' tight end Zach Miller last week.
If they don't keep an eye on Davis, he could easily produce similar numbers.
Davis has the strength of a lineman but the speed of a receiver. Although he doesn't feature much in the 49ers' game plan, he could spell trouble for the Falcons, especially considering how their linebackers have struggled in coverage this year.
That makes it imperative that Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are aware of Davis' position on the field at all times, or it could be a long afternoon for Atlanta's defense.
1. A Complete Defensive Effort
Last week's game featured a near-perfect start for Atlanta's defense after keeping the Seahawks to zero first-half points. The pass-rush was generating pressure, the secondary was forcing incomplete passes and Seattle's running game wasn't going anywhere but backwards.
When the Falcons came out of the tunnel in the second half, all that flipped. Wilson was given days to throw, allowing him to complete pass after pass downfield and run the ball when no one was open.
The entire defense shares the blame: The front four for performing a disappearing act the moment John Abraham stepped off the field, the linebackers for not getting home on blitzes (I'm looking at you, Sean Weatherspoon), the secondary for failing to be aware of their surroundings and Nolan for failing to adjust.
The Falcons were fortunate to leave the Georgia Dome alive after giving up 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of last week's game.
They won't be so fortunate if they allow the same to happen this time around.