Sunday’s NFC matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers promises to be a good one with many interesting matchups.
One match up in particular catches my eye as one of the keys to the game, and that will be the battle between the Atlanta receivers (including both WR’s and TE’s) and San Francisco’s ability to cover the pass. While we have already looked at how to slow down Matt Ryan, how do they 49ers slow down his receivers?
First, let’s look at the stats.
Tony Gonzalez- 93 rec, 930 yds , 10 TD’s
Roddy White- 92 rec, 1351 yds, 7 TD’s
Julio Jones- 79 rec, 1198 yds, 10 TD’s
Jacquizz Rodgers- 53 rec, 402 yds, 1 TD
Harry Douglas- 38 rec, 396 yds, 1 TD
The Cream of the Crop
First, those Top-3 receivers, Gonzalez, White and Jones. That’s probably the best combo in the NFL. So good, in fact, they were 70 receiving yards from Tony Gonzalez away from being the second WR, WR, TE combo to rack up 1,000 yards each. The last guys to do it? It was the 1980 Chargers who had Kellen Winslow (Senior) at tight end and Dan Fouts as the quarterback.
These guys are tall, athletic, can go and get the ball, fundamentally sound, fast; the list goes on and on. Then we add in Douglas as a fourth option, who is great in the slot and Rodgers, who is a great pass catcher out of the backfield adds another dimension to their offense.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they have a great group of defensive backs and linebackers who can combat the Falcons’ passing attack. First and foremost, they are the fifth best defense against the pass, only allowing 203 yards per game. That yards per game average includes having played Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers (twice), so in fact that ranking could be much higher. That’s incredible. But how do they do it again?
Slowing Down Gonzalez
Stopping the Falcons’ passing game starts with Matt Ryan’s safety valve. No, not Julio, not Roddy, but the other guy. You know, possibly the greatest offensive TE ever, who has the seventh most receiving yards (first for tight ends) and second most receptions all-time, trailing only Jerry Rice. Yeah, THAT guy.
When ‘push comes to shove’ and Matt Ryan is in trouble, he goes to the sure-handed Gonzalez. They key to stopping him? Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
With the 49ers likely to play a lot of zone defense against a vertical pass offense, Bowman and Willis will have to work together in the middle of the field to shut down Tony Gonzalez, and be especially vigilant of where he is on third down. At their best, they can hold a guy like Jimmy Graham from New Orleans to a mere four catches for 33 yards.
The Dynamic Duo
The two big wide receivers on the edge, White and Jones, will both pose serious threats. Against arguably the best defensive back combo in the league last week in the Seahawks the duo, they combined for 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, a mediocre day for the two. Part of the reason they were held in check was because those big Seattle defensive backs were able to disrupt the passing game by being physical at the line of scrimmage. Also key was the fact that Richard Sherman was able to make play after play deep down the field, and was phenomenal in one-on-one coverage.
The San Francisco defensive backs will be forced to make plays because Atlanta will definitely take their shots down the field. When those plays happen, it will be up to those guys (Whitner, Goldson, Brown, Rogers, Culliver, Cox, etc) to step up.
For these guys, the stats are on their side, showing that they have done it all year against the best of the best. Look at the first half against the New England Patriots when they dominated, or when Rodgers at times looked confused against the defense, throwing a few key interceptions. They have the ability to step up and make big plays and will have to show it once again against an elite passing unit.
Unfortunately, there is one Achilles heel for the 49ers this season: penalties. San Francisco is the fifth worst team in the league, averaging roughly seven penalties per game. From watching the team throughout the season, those mostly either come from delay of games, the offensive line or the defensive backs.
Time and time again, those penalties seem to come on game-deciding drives. There is a fine line between being physical as a defensive back and being overzealous and committing bad penalties, and oftentimes, San Francisco’s back four become too aggressive.
The defense is going to have to stay disciplined against the best receiving corps in the league because if you give them free yards and free first downs, they will surely make you pay. In the NFC Championship Game, you do not want to give away freebies.
All in all, the 49ers will have to stay disciplined on the back end against the Falcons’ physical receivers. They will have to come up with some big plays like Sherman did last week—albeit in a losing effort—down the field to limit those big plays Atlanta will continue to look for on Sunday. It’s a tough task to be sure, but if they are able to limit Atlanta’s passing game, then San Francisco will see itself going for their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.