49ers vs Falcons: Defensive Players Who Must Step Up for Atlanta to Win NFC

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 29:  John Abraham #55 of the Atlanta Falcons sacks Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints at Georgia Dome on November 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Matt Ryan might lead the Atlanta Falcons, but he'll need plenty of help from his defense in order to capture the NFC Championship.

The Atlanta Falcons defense wasn't getting much credit going into the NFL playoffs. With its poor second-half showing, the unit demonstrated how weak the Falcons can be at times.

It doesn't help Atlanta must face off against Colin Kaepernick, the hottest QB in the league right now. With his game, Kaepernick can beat the Falcons with his feet and his arm.

If the Falcons defense can slow Kaepernick down, their chances of getting to Super Bowl XLVII go up exponentially.

For that to happen, these three players must lay well.


Stephen Nicholas

Kaepernick needs to be confined to the pocket. Once he gets past the line of scrimmage, the defense is in trouble.

Should he get out in the open, it's going to be up to Stephen Nicholas to limit Kaepernick's threat past the line of scrimmage and in the defensive secondary.

The quarterback found himself with acres of space against the Green Bay Packers when he got past the initial rush. If Kaepernick finds himself with that kind of running room this Sunday, there's no way the Falcons will be able to get to New Orleans.

Also, he and Sean Weatherspoon will be responsible to covering Vernon Davis part of the time. Getting rid of a short option like that would force Kaepernick to look deeper, opening him up to more mistakes.


John Abraham

The health of defensive end John Abraham continues to be a point of concern for the Falcons. He was completely healthy during the divisional round and still missed most of the game.

It appears that Abraham will be ready to go by the time the NFC championship game rolls around (h/t ESPN). Whether he'll be 100 percent is still up in the air.

Abraham is a key factor for the Falcons defense. He led the team with 10 sacks during the regular season and is by far the best pass-rusher on the team.

Atlanta needs to get after Kaepernick while he's still in the pocket. That becomes much harder to do without Abraham.


Asante Samuel

The Falcons can't afford to give up 385 yards through the air and expect to win for another week. Atlanta's defense was atrocious in the second half as it surrendered 21 points and very nearly threw the game away.

Once an All-Pro cornerback, Asante Samuel has lost a step and isn't the same player he once was.

That doesn't mean he doesn't remain an effective player.

He was second on the team in interceptions, with five, and led the Falcons in pass breakups, with 19.

The 49ers don't have a ton of game-breakers at receiver, so if Samuel can help to lock down Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick might have a hard time checking down to his other wideouts.