This weekend's Conference Championship storylines are likely to be dominated by the rematch of last year's AFC game between the Ravens and Patriots, but the 49ers traveling to Atlanta to face the Falcons might be the most intriguing matchup.
After leading by 20 points against the Seahawks in last weekend's NFC Divisional matchup, the Seahawks' seemingly unstoppable offense scored four touchdowns in the second half. With 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Falcons found themselves down by one point.
Matt Ryan quickly erased that when he made two very good throws to set up kicker Matt Bryant for a game-winning 49-yard field goal. Now in the conference championship, the same defense that allowed 28 points in the second half faces a 49ers offense that scored 17 more points in their 45-to-28 win over the Green Bay Packers.
It will be a tough task for the Falcons' defense, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is an open-minded play-caller that has more than 30 years of experience teaching various schemes. His experience should help him prepare for the 49ers' dynamic and complicated run-first offense. There are four keys to slowing down the 49ers offense, and they resonate with fundamentals that are taught on the opening days of training camp.
Play with Discipline
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick frequently says to his players "do your job." It's a simple saying that implies that the defenders should look to just execute what's asked of them and only them in the game plan.
If a play call asks for cornerback Asante Samuel to come up as a force defender in Cover 2 against the run, he doesn't need to try to take a shortcut inside of the blocker to get to the running back. Instead, he should simply stand his ground outside, force the ball-carrier inside and let his teammates worry about him.
Whether the 49ers are running the option or dropping back to pass the ball in a traditional sense, the Falcons defenders have to be disciplined.
For instance, every defensive coach draws up a balanced pass-rush, featuring an equal amount of defenders to each side of the formation (unless it's a blitz). If it's a four-man rush, there are two outside (contain) and inside defenders (rushers). This is done to restrict the movement of the quarterback, thus containing him to just the pocket, which is crucial against Kaepernick. If the pass-rushers are going to different gaps, then they risk ruining the scheme.
Last week, the Packers tried to limit Kaepernick, at times, by calling fire zone blitzes, which are five-man blitzes with a coverage combination of six pass defenders. They struggled to keep the signal-caller in the pocket and were burned numerous times. The 49ers finished the game 8-for-13 on third down and ran for a total of 323 yards, which the Falcons cannot allow to happen on Sunday.
Don't Give up Yards After Catch
One thing that the 49ers have is wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was ninth in the NFL in yards after the catch with 469 (via STATS LLC). He has very quick feet that enable him to outrun angles and pick up chunks of yardage.
His ability to pick up yards on the ground is assisted by the design of the offense, which has West Coast offense principles. If there's one thing that has always stood out in this scheme it's that wide receivers almost always rack up YAC. The offense puts them in position to do this by calling several inside breaking routes, such as slants and posts, which Crabtree (along with tight ends Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis) excels at.
If the Falcons are going to get off the field on third down, they're going to have to tackle. The issue with this is that Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are not always the surest tacklers, as they struggle to break down in space consistently and don't always take the best of angles.
Furthermore, safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore don't always get enough depth on their drops and sometimes blow their coverage assignments due to the sheer amount of pre-snap movement, which could be an issue if the 49ers pass-catchers are able to wiggle past initial defenders.
Protect the Middle of the Field
Moreover, the safeties and linebackers are going to have to be disciplined in defending the middle of the field.
They struggled to do just that last weekend, allowing tight end Zach Miller to catch eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown thanks to a couple of blown coverage assignments and mismatches. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent struggles to turn and run while Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon sometimes aren't disciplined in their coverage assignments.
This area of the field is quite concerning going into this game, especially with the aforementioned matchup with Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis looming. Walker and Davis haven't been greatly productive the last few weeks, but both are threats down the seam and working across the field. They are athletic, run well and are particularly dangerous on play action.
The big question for Nolan will be if he can account for the run while also defending the middle of the field. In this situation, many coaches would likely go to their single-high safety packages, featuring Cover 1 (Man-Free), Cover 1 Robber and Cover 3. But will this be enough against the 49ers' multiple threats?
Win in the Trenches
The final key is winning in the trenches, which might be the most difficult. The 49ers' offensive line is big, powerful and very good in the running game. Conversely, the Falcons are lighter and very active, which will be important in working past the blockers to get to Kaepernick and slowing down the running game—another significant key.
They have to win with their quickness and motor because if the 49ers are able to get their hands on them, it's likely that they'll have some struggles to disengage and get to the quarterback.
Nolan is very multiple with his front and moves them around, which could potentially pose some problems for the blockers if or when they face stunts and pressure packages. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers' offensive line handles it because it had some issues at times in Weeks 13 and 14 against the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins.
Like the Falcons, both teams have relentless pass-rushers and were able to work past the 49ers' blockers with their quickness. The Rams, in particular, were able to disguise their blitzes and get after Kaepernick.
Can the Falcons slow down the 49ers Offense?
There's no doubt about it—this will be a very tough matchup for the Falcons' defense.
They are going to be facing a multiple running game that uses a wide variety of run concepts and sets them up through endless shifts and motions. The Falcons will have to adjust their play calls to these and play fundamentally sound football.
If everyone does their own job, they will be able to make the necessary plays to get off the field on third down and get their own offense on the field. Otherwise, they'll quickly be watching the Super Bowl like the rest of us.