To be fair, only three quarterbacks have done anything of note on the ground against the Falcons this year. Michael Vick rushed 7 times for 42 yards in a 30-17 loss. Vick had two first down carries that went for four yards, two third and long carries that went for 10 total yards but no first downs, and then three runs on 3rd and 3 or 4 where he picked up the first down. That’s not good, but not too alarming.
Russell Wilson, on the other hand, had 7 carries and all of them hurt. He had a one-yard touchdown run and a two-yard run on 3rd and 1; his other 5 carries went for 57 yards, with four going for first downs (the fifth was a five-yard first down run). And Wilson torched the Falcons through the air, too.
The third quarterback was Cam Newton, who frustrated the Falcons twice. Excluding kneels, Newton rushed 16 times for 204 yards and two touchdowns. In addition to his 72-yard score, two other carries went for 20+ yards, and a total of six of his 16 runs gained at least 10 yards.
More bad news for Atlanta: those four games were the only times Atlanta faced a mobile quarterback. The Falcons did face Robert Griffin III, but he had an injured hamstring and was limited to just one carry (and also left the game due to a concussion). It’s a small sample size, but the results against Newton and Wilson were discouraging. And if not for two miraculous Matt Ryan comebacks, the Falcons would have been 0-3 against Carolina and Seattle. If the defense is going to play like it did against Carolina or Seattle on Sunday, the Falcons offense will need to score 28+ points to win.
From defensive team to …?
The 49ers seem on the verge of shedding the label “great defensive team” and could just become a great team. That’s how successful Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree have been over the past two months. Take a second and think about the great defenses in recent memory. The Baltimore Ravens have struggled for over a decade to complement usually great defenses with a good offense, and only now appear to have vaulted over that bar- maybe. The Jets under Rex Ryan had great defenses in 2009 and 2010 but couldn’t match that on offense. The Chicago Bears made one Super Bowl in the Brian Urlacher-Charles Tillman-Lance Briggs era, but they’ve been struggling for even longer to find an offense. The Sam Madison-Zach Thomas-Jason Taylor Dolphins couldn’t even do that. Under Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh struggled in the postseason for years until the team added Ben Roethlisberger. The Tony Dungy Bucs couldn’t get over the hump, either, until Brad Johnson played like an elite quarterback for a brief period (under the tutelage of Jon Gruden). The Patriots, if you can remember, had great defenses when they won their Super Bowls, thanks to a better-than-we-realized quarterback.
The point is, it’s pretty hard to do it with just defense. The Buddy Ryan-Jerome Brown-Reggie White Eagles struggled in the playoffs, as did the Dome Patrol. Usually, the great defense stops being great before the mediocre offense can join the party. So what’s happening in San Francisco is pretty unusual. They certainly had the look of being the next Ravens or Steelers, but a funny thing happened on the way to the typecast machine: San Francisco learned how to score, with 23 offensive touchdowns in their last 8 games. Since the eleventh week of the season, Kaepernick ranks in the top five in AY/A, along with Russell Wilson, Cam Newton (who was outstanding in the second half of the year), Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady. He’s one of just 19 players with 400+ rushing yards over that period, and his 7.22 yards per carry average is the highest.
On the other hand, it hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies for the prized pupil of the Pistol. San Francisco struggled mightily against the Rams, and though some of the blame falls on Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs (combined, 27 carries for 66 yards), the 49ers still had 8 drives of 20 yards or fewer that ended in a punt or a turnover. Three weeks later in Seattle, three of their five first-half drives went for 0, 0, and 1 yard, and another was a six-play drive for 17 yards. By halftime, the score was 28-6.
Asking what you make of those games depends on your point of view (or bias). Atlanta fans would note that both of those games came on the road, and the Georgia Dome can be every bit as intimidating as CenturyLink Field. San Francisco backers would note that the Rams lead the NFL in sack rate while the Seahawks sported the top defense in the league, claims wholly inapplicable to Atlanta.
After the explosion
After seeing what the 49ers did to the Packers, it’s hard not to wonder “how can anyone stop this team?” But one game is always going to be a miniscule sample size, and history can confirm this. Two teams since 1990 have scored 50 points by the end of the third quarter in a playoff game. The 1999 Jaguars scored 62 points in the divisional round against Miami but lost after scoring just 14 points the following week against Tennessee. The 1995 Eagles lead the Lions 51-21 after three quarters in a game they won 58-37; the next week, Philadelphia lost 30-11 in Dallas. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of just one game, but one game tends to hold little predictive value. The 2009 Cardinals won an absurd shootout against the Packers, 51-45, before losing in New Orleans 45-14 the following week.
So I wouldn’t just expect the 49ers offense to run roughshod on the Falcons. The 1997 Denver Broncos are the only other NFL team to pass for 200 yards and run for 300 in a playoff game, a 42-17 thrashing of Jacksonville. The next week, they needed a fourth-quarter touchdown from Terrell Davis to win 14-10 in Kansas City.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a Falcons defense last seeing allowing three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks shutting down the 49ers. I suspect we’ll also see Jim Harbaugh pull out a trick or two this weekend, perhaps involving LaMichael James or Randy Moss. Kaepernick started becoming more of a traditional quarterback as the team (appeared to have) phased out the Pistol at the end of the regular season, culminating in a three-carry game against the Cardinals. Then he set a career high with 16 carries against the Packers, a sign that Harbaugh was purposely keeping a few tricks up his sleeve. I suspect he’s still got some surprises in store for Sunday.
Strength vs. Strength: Can Atlanta’s offense find success?
As Danny Tuccitto noted last week, San Francisco runs two basic defenses: a base 3-4 and then a 2-4-5 alignment in passing situations where NT Isaac Sopoaga is replaced by CB Chris Culliver. Against Green Bay and their four receiver sets, the 49ers defense had to operate outside of its comfort zone. Patrick Willis played in “only” 50 of the team’s 60 snaps and little used cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock collectively played in nearly half of the team’s snaps. Against Atlanta, San Francisco can operate out of its base defense more frequently, a pretty important feature for a team that features three first-team All-Pro linebackers (and the fourth starter, Ahmad Brooks, is also one of the better linebackers in the league). And while Atlanta will have with three receivers on the field fairly frequently, the Falcons rarely use four-wide receiver formations (and will use two-tight end sets or a fullback with some frequency). That plays into the 49ers hand.
With Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, Atlanta’s biggest advantage on offense is partially neutralized for the second week in a row. Roddy White and Julio Jones won’t be shut down, but I doubt they have monster games, either. Making matters worse, I suspect Tony Gonzalez struggles against Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. To complete the trifecta, San Francisco has one of the best run defenses in the league, making it unlikely that Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner excel for the second week in a row.
Atlanta played only two really good rush defenses this season, Denver and Tampa Bay. Against the Broncos, Michael Turner had 17 carries for 42 yards. The Bucs held Rodgers and Turner to 66 yards on 23 carries in the first meeting and 46 yards on 11 carries in the meaningless second matchup. I said something similar last week, but there are no caveats about San Francisco’s second-half rush defense.
I expect San Francisco to make Atlanta one-dimensional, which could be magnified if the 49ers offense has early success. Matt Ryan will need to have an outstanding, mistake-free game to beat San Francisco, and I’m not seeing it.
San Francisco 30, Atlanta 24