One of the most commonly used clichés in football is: "Defense wins championships." This year it might be more apt to say the defense that holds the other team under 40 points will win the championship. The NFL is now a high scoring offensive league. Gone are the days when an elite defense holds every team they play under 20 points en route to a title. Commissioner Roger Goodell made sure of this by changing the rules so players can’t hit receivers or quarterbacks pretty much under any circumstance.
With more information being made available about the damage concussions can do, the league had no choice but to deter defenders from imposing their physical will on the game. The byproduct of this is defense became 100-times more difficult to play in the NFL.
What does this have to do with the Atlanta Falcons vs. the San Francisco 49ers you ask? Well, this game will be decided by defense. Even though the deck is stacked against defenses dominating (as was commonplace in the past) the team with the better defense will capture the win.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons came into the game with the intent of taking away the run game and forcing rookie quarterback Russell Wilson instead of runningback Marshawn Lynch to beat them. The Seahawks are a team that bases everything they do off the run, so this made sense. Even when the Seahawks pass the ball, they are significantly more successful doing so in the play action than in passing sets.
In the first half, the Seahawks were shut out, and it was largely because they tried to run the ball against a defense schemed to stop the run. In the second half, they more or less abandoned the run, which lead to their comeback. This is important in the Atlanta vs. San Francisco match up because it underscores how Atlanta has to choose whether to stop the run or the pass. They chose to stop the run and got torched by the pass in the second half.
On the other hand, the Niners do not choose between the run and the pass, they just stop both. defensive end Justin Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis bring a physical presence that prevents teams from running against them. Linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith aggressively attacks the passer, while cornerback Carlos Rogers locks up receivers on the outside precluding teams from passing.
With the 49ers' well rounded defense, they will be able to slow down Atlanta enough for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide reciever Michael Crabtree to outscore the Falcons. Meanwhile, the Falcons will load up on the run and hope gambling corners Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson can make a game changing play. Expect the 49ers to throw to their tight ends early and often, negating the impact of Atlanta’s big-time corners.
In the end, the 49ers offense will have an answer for Atlanta’s defensive scheme. The Niners' defense focuses on fundamentals rather than scheme. This means that the only way to answer San Francisco's scheme is to win every individual battle. San Francisco can focus on fundamentals because of their elite defensive talent. This defensive talent will lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl.