How the Falcons' Inability to Stop Tight Ends Cost Them a Super Bowl Berth

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How the Falcons' Inability to Stop Tight Ends Cost Them a Super Bowl Berth
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Shortly after the Atlanta Falcons' 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, much of the attention turned to Falcons' tight end Tony Gonzalez and the question of whether or not the All-Pro had played his last game in the NFL

Gonzalez wasted little time and addressed the issue by saying that he had probably played his last game after 16 seasons (via ESPN).  A full day later, all signs still indicate that the NFL is about to lose arguably one of the best tight ends to ever play the game.

The tragic irony for Gonzalez is that if his Falcons had been able to cover their opponent's tight end in the first half on Sunday, he may be preparing for his first Super Bowl this week instead of cleaning out his locker. 

49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, and a closer look at Davis' role in both of the 49ers' second quarter touchdown drives helps explain how San Francisco easily erased an early 17-0 deficit.

Second Quarter, 9:08 left in the period; Atlanta 17, San Francisco 0; 49ers on 3rd-and-7 from ATL 42

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Play:  Colin Kaepernick finds Davis for a 27-yard gain to the Atlanta 15 after Kaepernick had backed the 49ers up with a delay of game penalty. 

End Result:  San Francisco scores its first touchdown of the game two plays later with a LaMichael James run.  Atlanta's lead is cut to 17-7.

Why Davis Made a Difference:  Without Davis's timely reception, the 49ers likely would have had to punt the ball back to the Falcons, who would then have the opportunity take a 24-0 lead.  This would have forced the 49ers to get away from the ground game.

Instead, San Francisco got to within two possessions of Atlanta and was able to stay patient with their running game throughout the day.  Atlanta's defense was hoping to force Kaepernick into an interception or two, but they didn't get too many opportunities since San Francisco was able to run the ball.  Colin Kaepernick only attempted 21 passes compared to Matt Ryan's 42.

How Davis Got Open:  The Falcons sent Sean Weatherspoon on a delayed blitz and Davis ran a short drag route right into the area that Weatherspoon vacated.  William Moore did a nice job of spying on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on this play, but he didn't make any contact with Davis when Davis crossed his face on the shallow route. 

In addition, it appears that DeCoud was ultimately responsible for Davis in coverage, but DeCoud took a false step at the snap and took a poor pursuit angle when he realized that Davis was running a drag route.  Davis picked up five extra yards at the end of this play when DeCoud couldn't bring Davis down from behind.

Second Quarter, 5:12 left in the period; Atlanta 17, San Francisco 7; 49ers on 2nd-and-16 from SF 12

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Play:  Kaepernick completes a pass to Davis for a 19-yard gain and a first down.

End Result:  San Francisco caps an eight-play, 82-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Davis to trim the Atlanta lead to 17-14

Why Davis Made a Difference:  San Francisco was backed up deep in their own territory and if Atlanta had covered Davis on second down, they would have been in good position to force Colin Kaepernick into a costly mistake on third-and-long. 

Because of that, the 49ers may have gone conservative on third down to mitigate the risk of a crucial turnover.  If Atlanta had been able to force a punt, the ensuing touchdown by Tony Gonzalez would have taken the lead back up to 17 instead of 10. 

However, because Atlanta allowed Davis to break free on second down, the drive continued.  Davis would eventually catch the last two passes of the drive and scoot into the end zone on the last play to bring his team within a field goal.

How Davis Got Open:  On the touchdown play, Davis faked like he was going to block before leaking out into the flat.  Stephen Nicholas made contact with Davis, but Nicholas instinctively ran upfield towards Colin Kaepernick and allowed Davis to continue trotting towards the end zone where Kaepernick found him for an easy touchdown pass.

While Davis only had one catch in the second half (31-yard catch, but the drive ended in a missed field goal by David Akers), once the 49ers got the game to a two-possession contest, they were in great position to make a comeback since they were receiving the opening kickoff.  Without Davis, San Francisco likely would have been behind by a greater margin at halftime and that could have taken the ball out of Frank Gore's hands. 

Davis' success against the Falcons wasn't too much of a surprise to fans who have been following Atlanta closely all season, or even Davis himself.  "I actually watched game (film of Atlanta-Seattle) three times in two days because I was so excited about that tight end, what he did," Davis said (via CSNBayArea.com). "You never know. You just have to be prepared." 

Davis didn't break new ground versus the Falcons with his performance on Sunday, he simply moved into the home that Seahawks tight end Zach Miller had built the week before on top of the foundation that had been laid by Carolina's Greg Olsen and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

Jimmy Graham causes problems for most teams in the league, but Olsen and Miller were able to take advantage of mismatches that were created when Atlanta had to use Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore to chase mobile quarterbacks.

After Thomas Dimitroff and his staff evaluate the Atlanta defense this offseason, expect the Falcons to put an emphasis adding a defender with the size and athleticism to matchup with opposing tight ends in pass coverage.

All Stats used courtesy of ProFootballReference.com

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