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Cornerbacks Tarell Brown (25) and Carlos Rogers (22) face another big challenge this week. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Last week, it was Aaron Rodgers and a cast of top-flight receivers that included Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson.
This week, it’s a quarterback nicknamed “Matty Ice” and an equally dangerous corps of pass catchers that will test the 49ers defense.
At this stage of the season, with the Niners heading to Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Falcons Sunday at noon (Pacific time), nothing gets easier.
On Monday, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said that trying to contain an Atlanta receiving corps that includes speedster Roddy White, big-play wideout Julio Jones and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez will be difficult.
“It’s a big task, it’s a big challenge when you look at the way they can. … and it’s been designed that way by them,” said Harbaugh at his news conference. “They’ve put together a tremendous receiving unit that you can’t pay too much attention to just one guy because several can hurt you. They’re good.”
This season, the Falcons had four receivers with 50 or more catches, led by Gonzalez – among the finest tight ends ever to play in the league. Gonzalez had 93 catches in the regular season for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. White was next with 92 catches for a team-leading 1,351 yards and seven TDs. Jones – a tremendous combination of size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and speed – is the team’s other big-play receiver with 79 catches for 1,198 yards (and a team-best 15.2 yards per catch) for 10 scores. Jacquizz Rodgers had 53 catches for 402 yards and a touchdown.
Throwing to them will be Matt Ryan, who again had a terrific season for the Falcons, completing 68.6 percent of his throws for 4,719 yards and 32 TDs against just 14 interceptions.
In leading the Falcons past the Seahawks last week in a divisional-round playoff game – driving his team into position for a game-winning field goal with 31 seconds remaining in their 30-28 victory – Ryan picked up a new nickname from his teammate, cornerback Asante Samuel.
“He’s ‘Matty Black Ice,’ ” Samuel told ESPN’s John Clayton. “Slick, you don’t see it coming.”
In examining the NFC Championship Game matchup between San Francisco and Atlanta, Clayton wrote that the 49ers defensive backs could be vulnerable against a very deep and talented bunch of receivers.
Clayton noted that 49ers starting corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have been solid this season, but have given up catches. Rogers was beaten for 55 catches on 90 throws in his direction for 575 yards and three TDs; Brown gave up 53 catches on 96 passes for 722 yards and just one TD. Third cornerback Chris Culliver gave up 39 catches on 75 attempts for 490 yards and four TDs. Wrote Clayton: “Ryan might go after Culliver.”
Bay Area News Group columnist Tim Kawakami, however, sees the Falcons as the type of team the Niners are built to handle.
“The toughest teams for the 49ers this year have been the physical run teams, and that really isn’t Atlanta – though the Falcons ran it well (vs. Seattle), it’s just not their identity.
“Their identity is Ryan throwing it to Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, and the 49ers D is set up to overpower throwing teams, like the 49ers did with Green Bay.”