The Atlanta Falcons are preparing to host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Falcons may have celebrated an incredible comeback against the Seattle Seahawks, but how they got there left some with trepidation. The Seahawks seemed unstoppable for 14:29 of the fourth quarter.
And the 49ers have the blueprint.
This begs the question: Will the 49ers exploit it or will the Falcons fix it?
Wide Open Spaces
With a 20-point lead, Falcons DC Mike Nolan had a logical game plan. He sent the secondary deep to prevent the deep scoring strike. His defensive front was set to contain Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. And they did.
Wilson and the Seahawks were quick to exploit the gaping hole in this strategy. The middle of the field was often devoid of defenders. This allowed Wilson and his tight end, Zach Miller, to hook-up easily and often.
With the defense focused on containing, Wilson had plenty of time to pick his spots. He could wait for a receiver to get open, look for a running lane or just toss it to Miller. Wilson optimized his choices and led the Seahawks to 21 fourth-quarter points.
If not for Matt Ryan's heroics, Wilson would have pulled off a comeback for the ages.
Anticipating Anticipation Throws
Matt Ryan has a weakness. Ryan might have above average physical skills, but his ability to read defenses is what makes him great. Ryan can often spot mismatches pre-snap and adjust the play accordingly. When Ryan becomes overconfident in this ability, his strength turns into his weakness.
Ryan knows who should be open and when. Ryan will place the ball in the correct spot—or what should be the correct spot. Ryan's confidence in himself and his teammates sometimes leads to mistakes.
The Seahawks exploited this, not only to limit Ryan, but to force two interceptions. The key was timing the contact with receivers. If the Seahawks jammed on the receiver's first step, Ryan would adjust. Instead, the Seahawks would contact the receivers during their routes. Not enough to draw interference flags, but enough to slow receivers and alter their course.
This led to several throws that looked worse than they actually were. The type that made some question exactly to whom Ryan was throwing.
49ers Primed To Exploit
The team that best addresses these two issues will most likely advance to the Super Bowl. The 49ers have the personnel to capitalize on the advantage even better than the Seahawks.
On offense, the 49ers can utilize the speed of Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss to force the Falcons secondary into even deeper coverage. Vernon Davis is dangerous when covered, much less in open space. Colin Kaepernick has the speed to make lapses on defense turn into points.
On defense, the 49ers will generate a more ferocious pass rush than the Seahawks created. Forcing Matt Ryan to make even quicker decisions will force more anticipation throws. The 49ers' speedy corps of linebackers will help limit Ryan using Tony Gonzalez as an escape valve.
Tempo Cures All
The Falcons can fix these issues. Throughout 2012, the answer to most of the Falcons' problems has been staring them in the face. The face of a clock, that is.
It is all about tempo.
The Falcons must stay up-tempo and aggressive on both sides of the ball.
On defense, the Falcons need to focus on stopping the 49ers instead of just slowing them. This will lead to the occasional big play. The Falcons defense has shown that yards allowed between the red zones is not a stat that defines wins. The defense excels when it is attacking the ball and is less concerned with failure.
On offense, tempo is of even greater significance. Ryan can use the no-huddle to limit substitutions and create favorable matchups. This also allows the Falcons' talented receivers to get quicker separation. This separation will be paramount on timing routes and allowing Ryan to assess the field while dropping back.
As odd as it sounds, the Seattle Seahawks have given both teams a road map to victory. On Sunday, the victor will be the one who used it.