While the NFC Championship Game features some of the best offensive talent in the NFL, it’s the defensive stars that will decide which team makes the trip to New Orleans on February 3.
Both Atlanta and San Francisco field terrific offensive units led by quarterbacks with a lot to gain this weekend. Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick are in search of their second playoff win and a berth in the Super Bowl for the first time in their short careers.
But it’s the defensive stars that will truly decide the outcome of Sunday’s NFC showdown. Shutting down either Ryan or Kaepernick will be each team’s top priority.
We’ll take a look at some of the defensive stars of the game who must play well to ensure a victory.
“Spoon” is a fan favorite in Atlanta—and for good reason. He has the personality to match his play.
Weatherspoon was dinged up this year, but he still managed to record 95 tackles and three sacks. He won’t be after sacks on Sunday against Colin Kaepernick and the new-look 49ers offense, though.
Weatherspoon plays the weakside linebacker position, which means he will be lined up opposite San Francisco’s tight ends on most plays. He’ll have room to roam, but his first concern will be keeping Kaepernick in the pocket and behind the line of scrimmage.
Because of his aggressive style, Weatherspoon must play with patience and control against the 49ers, especially against the run. With Atlanta’s defensive ends focusing on keeping containment around Kaepernick and funneling plays up the middle, Weatherspoon and the rest of Atlanta’s linebacking corps will be asked to make a lot of plays in run support.
If Weatherspoon has a good game, it means Kaepernick and Frank Gore probably won’t.
Smith is one of the best pass-rushers in the league, and despite his drop-off in production late in the season, he’s still as effective as ever.
Getting pressure on Matt Ryan is the key to San Francisco success this Sunday. Ryan isn’t very mobile, and he can’t be allowed too much time in the pocket to look downfield for Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. San Francisco’s pass rush must perform.
San Francisco’s cornerbacks will be spread thin trying to cover Atlanta’s trio of talented receiving threats, and coverage sacks will come at a premium. Smith must play his best game to keep Ryan on his toes.
The 4-3 defense is predicated on penetrating offensive linemen, which can disrupt the flow of offensive plays and create havoc in the backfield. That doesn’t work too well against a quarterback as mobile as Kaepernick.
Abraham is talented at getting penetration and taking down opposing quarterbacks, but he should be more concerned with containing Kaepernick in the pocket and not allowing him to get around the edge when the play breaks down. With a running back as talented as Frank Gore also in the backfield, Abraham will work to funnel everything into the middle of the line.
Abraham isn’t a big defensive lineman, but he’s strong and agile. If he can use his mobility to slip blocks and avoid getting pushed around by San Francisco’s offensive line, he should be able to limit Gore and Kaepernick to small gains.
San Francisco’s secondary will have plenty of work to do this weekend.
Carlos Rogers is a terrific zone-coverage corner, but he won’t be asked to run with White or Jones on deep routes very often. Brown is the faster, more athletic corner on the roster, and he’ll have the responsibility of hanging with Atlanta’s fastest receivers.
Atlanta can still run the football with Michael Turner, but his effectiveness was limited this year as Ryan and the Falcons shifted to a more pass-happy brand of football. Ryan will air it out early and often on Sunday, and Brown must be prepared.
San Francisco’s entire secondary can also help its pass rush by playing tight man coverage and making Ryan cycle through his progressions, giving time for Smith and the rest of San Francisco’s pass rush to get after Ryan in the pocket.