The Falcons managed to somehow blow another lead, except this time they didn't come back and steal the game at the last second.
After blanketing the 49ers offense early and scoring 17 straight points, they looked in total control. Matt Ryan was seemingly unstoppable, Julio Jones was monstrous, Tony Gonzalez unable to be covered and Roddy White was being his usual consistent self. Yet, at the half, they held a mere 10-point lead and something just didn't feel right.
The Falcons were winning, but it was one of those uncomfortable ones that sees the little things go wrong. In addition to the lack of comfort, the 49ers were heating up.
After a slow start, Colin Kaepernick finally discovered that he had tight ends, throwing to Vernon Davis for multiple first downs and finding No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker for a 20-yard reception in the early stages of the third quarter. Things were slowly but surely starting to break down for the Falcons, and the first thing that stood out was the lack of patrol in the middle of the field.
When a team comes to the playoffs, one thing is certain: Any weaknesses it has will be exposed. And the Falcons' weakness was their lack of speed on defense, especially at the linebacker position.
A talking point throughout the week was the linebackers going up against the 49ers' tight ends. Only a week earlier, they gave up 142 yards to Seattle's Zach Miller because of a combination of blown coverages and lack of speed.
It was the case again this week against Davis and Walker, who combined for 126 yards. However, the problem was that they didn't just give up an abundance of shallow routes to tight ends but the receivers too.
Here's one example. Early into the third quarter, veteran Randy Moss ran a dig route into the middle of the field for a 17-yard reception against the Falcons' Cover 2.
Moss was a part of the offense's 11 personnel, featuring one running back and one tight end. He was split left on the backside of a Trips formation and lined up just inside the numbers.
On the strong side, in-line tight end Vernon Davis was going to be a key contributor. He would be running a corner route but not before taking a long vertical stem just outside the right hash. Because Davis ran near the seam, middle linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who was responsible for dropping down the seam, had to account for him.
Once Davis ran vertically, Nicholas opened his hips out in his direction and ran with the stem. Even though Davis would be breaking outside after 10 yards, Nicholas had to run with him and consequently leave the middle of the field vacant.
With the curl/hook defenders forced to drop their landmarks, Moss ran behind outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (left) and caught the pass for 17 yards in the middle.
Moreover, another issue that the Falcons ran into in this game was stopping the run. They couldn't contain Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
The two backs complemented each other very well, with the majority of Gore's work coming in between the tackles while James' ran outside. What makes the two ball-carriers so difficult to contain is that they have low center of gravity, allowing them to run behind their pads and, as a result, be difficult to bring down.
Perhaps the biggest issue the Falcons had against the run was that the 49ers' blockers reset the line of scrimmage, driving the defensive line backwards and frequently getting a hat on a hat. When that happens, the linebackers start to become more aggressive and cheat up to defend the run. And when linebackers cheat, they get busted.
That's what happened to Stephen Nicholas when his feet froze on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Nicholas and the defense were playing a combination of zone and man coverage against the 49ers' 21 personnel, and when Kaepernick executed a play-action fake to Gore, Nicholas stood still. He was reading the fake while slot receiver Michael Crabtree ran a shallow cross behind him.
Kaepernick quickly pulled the ball back up and scanned the field. He looked left before shifting his eyes right, identifying Crabtree running away from nickel corner Robert McClain. With Crabtree having a step on McClain, Kaepernick fired the ball over the head of Nicholas and into the hands of his receiver, who broke a couple of tackles before being taken down by safety Thomas DeCoud for a total of 33 yards.
There's no debating that the defense struggled in this game, but it's not alone. Although the offense got off to a hot start, it struggled to move the ball in the second half unlike the first.
Two big reasons why the offense slowed down was because the 49ers defenders finally started playing disciplined. The safeties clamped down the vertical routes that gave them fits in the first half, the cornerbacks were physical at the line of scrimmage and the linebackers played better in coverage.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis had some issues going up against Tony Gonzalez, but that's to be expected. Willis was able to cover Gonzalez well enough in crucial situations for Ryan to move on to next read. Sometimes the following read was a running back that was, at times, covered by the athletic NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers other outstanding inside linebacker.
In addition to the 49ers' defensive improvements, the Falcons offense turned the ball over twice.
Matt Ryan's two turnovers—though the interception was not his fault—proved to be crucial even though the 49ers didn't capitalize on them. They were still able to prevent the Falcons from scoring, which was a possibility when the Falcons had the ball considering Ryan fumbled the shotgun snap just inside the 49ers' 30-yard line and threw his only interception at the 38-yard line.
All in all, fingers can't be pointed at just one player. The team collectively blew a 17-point lead and lost the game in the end, as a myriad of mistakes were made on both sides of the ball.
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