As everyone predicted 4 months ago, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick are the 2 starting quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game.
Colin Kaepernick has made me a full believer. I wavered in my belief after the terrible outing against Seattle Seahawks; I thought it was possible that Harbaugh had perhaps overestimated Kaepernick’s ability as a down-field passer and got blinded by his tremendous athletic ability. It is very clear that is not the case; the kid can straight up play quarterback at a very high level in the NFL. Kaepernick’s ability to run the ball in the zone-read scheme and out of the pistol with Frank Gore has to be giving Mike Nolan fits. Part of the reason that Kaepernick has been so successful is that Harbaugh has designed such a brilliant run game. Opposing defenses are kept off balance not only by the option part of the offense, but also how Harbaugh has designed that game. Kaepernick and Frank Gore have run counters, option pitch runs, Kaep has handed it off to the fullback and thrown it out of the zone read and pistol. Last week, the Atlanta defense struggled to contain Russell Wilson out of the zone read; Marshawn Lynch was unusually ineffective but game script and an injury can explain that. Seattle, however, runs a much more simplified version of the zone read. If Kaep takes the ball, he or Frank Gore could go either way, due to the brilliance of San Francisco’s offensive line. The line can hold their blocks while Kaep makes a decision in the backfield and allows Gore to run counters and hit different gaps. That advantage cannot be emphasized more.
In the vertical passing game, the Falcons shouldn’t feel overly confident either. Once Kaepernick gets aggressive and settles into a game, he has shown remarkable prowess on the deep ball. Basically overnight, Micheal Crabtree has turned into the receiver we thought he should be. Coming out of Texas Tech, the expectations on Crabtree were sky high; he’s been anywhere from bad to mediocre since. Once Kaepernick took over, a whole new Micheal Crabtree took over, one who scored twice in the Divisional round matchup against the Packers and should be giving Asante Samuel fits. Mike Nolan’s defensive game plan needs to be structured on keeping his linebackers active in pursuit but also limiting Crabtree. He is clearly far and away Kaepernick’s favorite target. Randy Moss and Vernon Davis have both gotten deep targets underneath Kaepernick but haven’t realized the level of production that Crabtree has. The west coast elements of Harbaugh’s offense make it hard to focus on just one player, but rather, Nolan should be focusing on keeping the safeties aware of the run game and who has the ball, and in the passing game, keeping Kaepernick in the pocket and blanketing Crabtree. That said, the Falcons rank 12th in “Defensive Expected Points Added” and 6th in “Defensive Win Probability Added”, two advanced metrics from Advanced NFL Stats. This is no pushover for the Niners.
On the offensive side of the ball, Matt Ryan is in for a fight. With Justin Smith’s return from injury, the 49er’s recovered the man who calls most of the blitzes for the down lineman and consistently commands a double team. The strength of the 49er’s defense is their play against the run and luckily, most of the Falcons offensive success is not predicated on the run game. Outside of Jacquizz Rodgers’ impressive run where he made 4 guys miss and hit sticked Earl Thomas, the Atlanta running backs haven’t really been impressive all year. Micheal Turner is averaging 3.2 YPC and Rodgers is averaging 3.9. Those are incredibly pedestrian numbers. I fully expect Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis to swallow both of these running backs whole.
Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are a totally different story. Matt Ryan finally has the monkey off his back. He has won a playoff game, which should result in some better play against the 49er’s secondary that was torched by Russell Wilson and Tom Brady earlier in the year. Julio Jones and Roddy White have staked the claim as the best wide receiver duo in the NFL and it isn’t really that close. Both are capable of winning individual matchups down the field and making the 49er’s secondary pay for their aggressive play. I expect the 49er’s get at least 3 flags out of their secondary due to hits on defenseless receivers, defensive holding, or pass interference. Jones sheer athletic ability and White’s precision down the field will be a huge headache all day long for the Niners. Gonzalez should be matchup on Willis or Bowman and has a height advantage on both. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons realize that the ground game is getting them nowhere and throw the ball upwards of 45 times in this matchup. That should mean nice Fanduel days for Roddy White, Jones, Gonzalez and Matt Ryan.
It’s hard to find someone who believes in the Falcons less than me, even after they ended #allrussellwilsoneverything.