Unless the Atlanta Falcons defense has undergone some sort of metamporphosis in recent weeks, it might be in trouble Sunday against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ read-option offense.
Twice this season, the Falcons were shredded by the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton. Newton, a big, fast quarterback like Kaepernick, runs read-option plays similar to the ones the 49ers use.
Though the Falcons won both matchups with the Panthers, they had no formula for stopping the Panthers’ ground game.
Carolina ran for 199 yards in its first game against Atlanta and 195 in its second; Newton ran for 86 yards and a touchdown in the first game and 116 yards and a TD in the second. Then, last week in its divisional-round playoff win over Seattle, the Falcons allowed quarterback Russell Wilson to rush for 60 yards and a TD.
In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the Falcons defense has faced six option rushes by a quarterback this season, and those plays netted 124 yards – an average of 20.7 yards per carry.
In the 49ers’ 45-31 victory over the Packers in the divisional round, San Francisco gained 176 yards on 16 read-option rushes, according to ESPN Stats. Kaeprnick, on designed plays, scrambles and option reads, set an NFL record for a quarterback by rushing for 181 yards.
It’s been noted, too, that the Falcons like to play a lot of nickel packages on defenses – employing a fifth defensive back – just as the Packers do. In their loss to the 49ers, the Packers defensive backs often were playing man-to-man defense with their backs turned to Kaepernick, which allowed him to take off for big runs.
Pat Yasinskas of ESPN, who covers the NFC South, says the Panthers showed the Falcons might be extremely vulnerable to the 49ers running attack in this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta (noon, Pacific time).
“Newton and the Panthers used the read option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta,” Yasinskas wrote this week. “Carolina got the defensive ends to commit and Newton made the right calls. He’s a unique talent and so is Kaepernick.” What might make San Francisco even more effective, he wrote, is that the 49ers also have a strong running back in Frank Gore, who rushed for 119 yards vs. Green Bay last week.
“Atlanta’s defense had issues with the read option,” Yasinskas wrote. “But the Falcons weren’t all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons used a lot of nickel packages and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run.”
Yasinskas suggested the Falcons might deem it necessary to stay in more of their 4-3 base defense – yet that would make them vulnerable to the Niners’ passing game.
The Falcons this season ranked 21st in rushing defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 123.2 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. The Niners ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and 155.7 yards per game.
Mike Smith, the Falcons head coach, saw the damage Kaepernick did to the Packers and knows his team will have to be aware of Kaepernick on every single play. Smith’s defensive backs can’t just cover receivers; each has to keep one eye open for the quarterback.
“You’ve got to have vision on defense,” Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “You can’t match up and play match coverage or man-to-man because when he gets into the secondary, he’s a guy that can go the distance. He outran a number of fast players in the ballgame on Saturday night.”
Added Smith, who acknowledged his team also had trouble containing Seattle’s Wilson last week: “(Kaepernick) is a much taller player than Russell, and probably faster. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the 49ers former head coach, calls Kaepernick “a game-wrecker.”
“He’s got great open-field speed,” Nolan told the Sacramento Bee, adding that the 49ers do a nice job of utilizing Kaepernick’s special talents in the read option and Pistol offense that he ran at Nevada.
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line Sunday, the Falcons can’t afford to allow Kaepernick to run wild on them. Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said he and his teammates know first-hand how difficult it is to contain quarterbacks such as Wilson, Newton, Robert Griffin III and Kaepernick.
“Against Cam Newton we struggled a little bit,” Robinson told USA Today. “So we understand we’re going to have to play 60 minutes and probably extend coverages a little longer.
“We learned against Seattle that we have to be much better. There can’t be anymore ‘My bads.’ There can’t be anymore ‘I’ll get it next time.’ When we get the opportunity, we have to make plays.”