The Atlanta Falcons have some serious explaining to do after last week’s near collapse against the Seattle Seahawks.
What may be worse for Atlanta is that they have to answer to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday. The 49ers boast one of the league’s best defenses.
The 49ers’ defense is the real deal in all facets—200 yards allowed per game passing, 94 rushing and a third down conversion rate that is below 33 percent.
Granted, there are very few quarterbacks in the league like Matt Ryan.
At the end of the day, Ryan is going to get his. He’s only thrown for fewer than 250 yards four times this season, but prior to Sunday had done so in each of his previous three playoff starts.
However, Ryan as a passer is not the key to the offense, and the proof is abundant.
In the Falcons three losses, Ryan threw just two interceptions total and had less than 350 yards just once (by comparison, Ryan had three multi-interception games that all resulted in a win).
In the same three games, the Falcons managed more than 50 yards rushing just once, a whopping 65-yard performance where no back amassed more than 30 yards.
If this isn’t proof enough that the Falcons need to run the ball to win, just watch last week’s performance by Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers.
That’s not to say Ryan is useless or that he can make big mistakes as long as the Falcons run the football. However, Ryan’s most important role is field-general. His prowess in the no-huddle and ability to audible at the line of scrimmage will be crucial, especially if the defense leaves the box empty early.
On the other side of the ball, it is a much different tale.
The Falcons’ defense is the prototypical “bend but don’t break” defense.
Last week, after a strong first-half shutout, the Falcons’ defense broke like a New Orleans’ levy.
The zone-blitz scheme that Atlanta ran against Seattle proved effective against Russell Wilson and the read-option—or at least it was until he started finding 15-yard gaps in the middle of the field.
If the Falcons can solve their coverage woes against San Francisco, then the matchup may prove as a positive for the Falcons. The 49ers, quarterbacked by second-year Colin Kaepernick, run a similar read-option offense with a similar power running back.
Regardless, the 49ers have one asset that gives them an edge that Seattle couldn’t duplicate: Vernon Davis.
Davis is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football. Despite some reports that Davis and Kaepernick didn’t have the same rapport that Davis and former starter Alex Smith did, Davis will always pose a threat.
Enhancing his destructive potential was the performance put up by Seattle tight end Zach Miller last Sunday.
Miller’s eight catches and 142 yards were both season-highs. Miller also caught a touchdown after having just three all season up to that point.
In stopping Davis, the Falcons have two options.
They can pull a blitzing linebacker, like Sean Weatherspoon, to cover him, which creates a clear speed matchup problem for the Falcons. The alternative would be to use a safety or nickel corner, which would solve the speed problem but result in a huge size disadvantage for any Atlanta defensive back.
The latter seems like the more effective option. Weatherspoon was able to get effective pressure on Wilson last week and will need to do so again to rattle Kaepernick.
If those things happen, Atlanta has a very good chance of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
The game will air Sunday on FOX. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. eastern time.
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