For the second straight week, a West Coast opponent will glide across the Georgia Dome turf with the goal of standing between the Atlanta Falcons and Super Bowl XLVII.
Before the Falcons can match their franchise's promotional creed and 'Rise Up', they must turn their attention to the ground. It's how 49ers pistolback Colin Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore were able to shred the Green Bay Packers defense like mozzarella cheese during the NFC's Divisional Round. While Kaepernick's NFL-quarterback single game rushing record has gotten more pub than Kimye, Gore's humble 119-yard performance went unnoticed.
Mike Smith and his defensive coordinator/former Niners head coach Mike Nolan certainly should have paid attention while breaking down the Niners All-22 tape. The Niners fourth-ranked run defense averages 155.7 rushing yards per game.The Falcons 21st ranked run defense has given up 123.2 rushing yards per game, is 29th in yards allowed per rush and have struggled against athletic quarterbacks. In two regular season NFC South meetings, Kaepernick clone, Cam Newton averaged 251 yards by air and tacked on an extra 101 yards per game against Atlanta.
Last weekend, Russell Wilson became just the latest running quarterback to slice and dice Nolan's 4-3 defensive unit to the tune of 385 yards, two touchdowns passing, 60 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Kaepernick is seven inches taller and besides his long stride, is a much different runner.
“I think he [Kaepernick] is more of a 'one read and go' guy, where Russell was more contemplative in the pocket.” Falcons safety Thomas Decoud said.
The NFL may have become a passing league but the Falcons disadvantage on the ground is a large component behind why Vegas and most experts view them as significant underdogs. According to ESPN betting expert RJ Bell, the Falcons are the biggest home underdog of the past 30 conference championships.
Offensively, the Falcons trot out a lethal offensive quartet of their own in Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. To counter, the Niners will likely employ plenty of five defensive back, nickel sets. Cornerback Carlos Rodgers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, in addition to Pro-Bowl safeties Dashon Goldson and Dante Whitner will be tasked with clipping the wings from the Falcons sixth-ranked passing offense.
The success of the Niners nickel set will depend on Michael Turner's production against injured defensive end Justin Smith and San Fran's two inside linebackers Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Niners deployed a similar strategy in five wins against pass happy offenses New Orleans, New England, Detroit and Green Bay. Not only did the Niners stop those passing games in their tracks but they also didn't allow a single 100 or even 90 yard rusher in each of those wins.
Before Turner's 14 carry, 98-yard outbreak against the Seahawks, the aging vet averaged 50 yards per game on a paltry on 3.6 yards per rush. He'll split carries with scatback Jacquizz Rodgers, who will also make an impact via bubble screens as an extension of the running game.
Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo will be assigned with blocking Aldon Smith while left tackle and left guard will share Justin Smith. Fortunately for Ryan, Justin is essentially playing with one healthy arm after partially tearing his triceps against New England in Week 15. Since Justin's injury, Aldon has gone sackless after recording 19.5 in his first 13 games.
While the Falcons are fighting for Tony Gonzalez' football future, a tight end on the other sideline may play a more significant role in Saturday's matchup.
Forgotten about Kaepernick's 181 yards rushing effort against Green Bay, the Niners quarterback also displayed a natural ability to thread the needle with his howitzer for an arm while succinctly throwing for 263 yards. According to Football Outsider's advanced statistical tracker, Atlanta cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel have had been a top-ten unit defending the top-two receivers on opposing offenses this season. On Sunday, they will be matched up against Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. Since Kaepernick became the starter in Week 11, Crabtree is fifth in catches (50), fourth in receiving yards (714) and tied for second with seven touchdowns.
However, the Falcons are 21st against tight ends. Vernon Davis has seen his production dip significantly since Kaepernick supplanted Smith as the Niners starter but should be a significant part of Sunday's game plan. Last Sunday, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Perennial Pro-Bowler Patrick Willis will be tasked with the impossible task of attempting to bottle up the Falcons future Hall of Famer, Gonzalez.
Rushing the passer against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL will be critical for Atlanta's 23rd-ranked pass defense against Kaepernick when he drops back into the pocket. Kaepernick's 81.5 Total QBR is the second-best in the league. Returning defensive end John Abraham recorded 10 of the Falcons 29 sacks(28th in the league) this season and is the NFL's active leader in the stat but has been nursing an ankle injury all week. He also has been lost in the pass rushing Sahara behind the line of scrimmage since Nov. 29 when he last reeled in a quarterback for a sack.
If the Falcons don't find a solution to neutralizing Kaepernick on their home turf, the 49ers will run away with a huge lead and the NFC title.
Kickoff: 3:00 ET on FOX at the Georgia Dome
Prediction: 49ers win 31-20.
Where To Watch Online: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons