The 49ers and Falcons meet in Atlanta to decide the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLVII. Here’s a preview of what to look for on Sunday:
Players to Watch: Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, DE, San Francisco – While the 49ers defense was ranked #2 overall in the NFL this year, they have given up 31 or more points in three of their last four games. Over that stretch, Justin Smith missed three weeks with a partially-torn triceps tendon, and Aldon Smith has not collected a single sack after getting to the quarterback 19.5 times through the first 13 games of the season. The lack of pressure from the defensive line has forced San Francisco to bring extra rushers from the linebackers and secondary, leaving passing and second-level running lanes exposed. Justin Smith’s arm will likely be in a brace as it was last week against the Packers, but if he can regain some of his effectiveness and demand double teams, it might make things easier on the other side of the line for Aldon Smith and allow the 49ers to remain back in coverage, limiting the Falcons’ potent passing attack. If not, Atlanta’s receiving corps could have a field day.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta – Last week, against the Seahawks’ #1 rated defense, the Falcons were able to run the ball for 167 yards, almost twice their average for the season, due in large part to Seattle being without starting DE Chris Clemons. As a result, the passing game opened up for Matt Ryan, who threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best secondaries in the NFL. The 49ers, however, will have all eleven defensive starters on the field, and a rush defense that has been consistently great all season. This puts the pressure squarely on Ryan’s shoulders. San Francisco likes to use a 2-4-5 defense on passing downs, which may work effectively against the Falcons, who tend to stick to offensive sets with no more than three wide receivers. Having Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis at the linebacker position may limit Tony Gonzalez. Receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White are impossible to shut down completely, but their opportunities for big plays will be limited by the secondary. In order to win, Ryan will have to be near-perfect. He threw two interceptions last week and needed a late drive down the field to beat the Seahawks. If he makes mistakes against the 49ers, he may not get another opportunity for a comeback.
Key Matchup: Colin Kaepernick vs. the Falcon’s Defensive Line – In their Divisional win over the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers got big plays from the read option, which they run out of the pistol formation. Colin Kaepernick gained 137 of his record 181 rushing yards when keeping it himself in the option on runs to the outside, which created opportunities on the inside for Frank Gore, who gained all but five of his 119 yards between the tackles. The key to stopping the read option is to keep Kaepernick contained, like the Seahawks did in Week 16, allowing only 28 yards to the outside in a blowout win. With John Abraham nursing an ankle injury, Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker will need to prevent the 49ers from rushing to the outside for big plays. That would still leave Gore up the middle and Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis in the passing game to contend with, but the Falcons would rather see Kaepernick try to beat them with his arm than with his legs.
Prediction: San Francisco 31, Atlanta 17