A lot of guys are needed to stop Justin Smith.
Luckily for the 49ers, Smith came back and recorded eight tackles in the Divisional Round game against the Packers. And he impacted the game in a big way, helping the 49ers get back into the NFC Championship Game.
Smith doesn't get too many sacks, but he allows Aldon Smith to do so. Smith is currently on a sack drought, but he piled up 19.5 in the regular season. Smith occupies at least one defender every time he rushes, and he occupies two often as well.
Aldon Smith is hungry for sacks, and he knows that for the 49ers to stand a chance against Matt Ryan—arguably a top-5 quarterback—and his receiving weapons (Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and others), both Smiths need to be able to get to Ryan. Ryan was picked off twice against Seattle, and once was because pressure was coming too fast and he hurried his throw.
Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner picked off the pass, and there wasn't a Falcon in the area. It was a rookie mistake by a five-year veteran, and it's one that the 49ers can force again if they get to Ryan quickly.
The problem definitely won't be beating an elite team and an elite quarterback, since they have beaten Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees a combined four times this season (with zero losses as well). Brady has Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Rodgers has Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Brees has Marques Colston, Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. So, they have faced some good quarterback-receiver tandems before.
Who is the 49ers X-Factor?
Smith is not concerned about his partially torn triceps, and he will definitely be healthier than he was last week. Atlanta knows that he was a force against Green Bay and they know he will be better, so if they want to give Ryan time, they'll need to take down Smith.
Matt Ryan has been known to force passes, as he has 16 interceptions in 17 games. Against good defenses, he hasn't been all that successful either. Ryan has thrown 13 picks in nine games against top-18 defenses, and 10 picks in seven games against top-12 defenses.
However, the Falcons are 8-1 against top-18 defenses and 6-1 against top-12 defenses, partly because Ryan can also shred the defense with lots of touchdowns (35). He will throw for a lot of passing yards as well, and he will deliver his primary targets the ball. San Francisco's secondary is decent, but they will have a hard time.
Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers and the 49er secondary know how to play, and Brown had a great game with two interceptions—one being taken back by a penalty. Goldson is a great safety, and everyone is capable of making plays in the 49ers secondary.
However, Rogers has not had a good season, and no secondary can hold up forever. If Ryan has all day to throw, he will find White, Jones or Gonzalez. And it will take some sacks and pressure from both Smiths.
Justin is not a sack machine, but he will hurry, hit and intimidate the opposing quarterback, in this case Ryan. But he will also allow Aldon to make a play as well as making plays in the running game, and in 14.5 games with Justin Smith, Aldon has 19.5 sacks. Justin is known for bull-rushing a lot, and when he does that, he gets close to the quarterback. So, if he can do that early and intimidate Ryan, he can force some hurried throws.
Green Bay tested Smith early to see how he could handle his injury, but he's going to better this week. If Atlanta does test him early on, he will beat them, because he'll be playing pretty close to 100 percent. In the NFL, you are never 100 percent, but Smith will be ready for sure.
Colin Kaepernick and the offense are important, but almost everyone is confident that the 49ers will score enough. But for the 49ers to win the game, they will need to stop the Falcons, and they will need to make Atlanta's wide receivers and the 49ers' secondary a non-factor.
And while that won't happen, the only way to minimize the importance of that matchup is having Smith going strong.