Colin Kaepernick not only ran over and through the Green Bay Packers last week, but he scared the heck out of the Falcons – and the rest of the NFL, for that matter.
Going into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta, the key to a win is obvious.
If the Falcons can contain Kaepernick, they stand a good chance of winning and advancing to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. If they can’t, then the Niners will get a chance to add to their collection of five Super Bowl trophies.
Oddsmakers are believing in the 49ers right now. They’ve made San Francisco a 3½- to 4½- point favorite.
Kaepernick proved impossible to stop in San Francisco’s divisional-round playoff win over the Packers as he rushed for 181 yards. The team’s read-option offense confused Green Bay, and Kaepernick and Frank Gore ran wild. Plus, Kaepernick showed his prowess as a passer especially in teaming with Michael Crabtree.
So as the Falcons get ready to host the Niners, they sound confident they can score points with quarterback Matt Ryan, a great crop of receivers and a strong offensive line. The real question is whether they can stop Kaepernick, who now has vaulted into exalted status among NFL quarterbacks with his special talents. As Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said this week, Kaepernick is “a game-wrecker.”
“We’re going to go out there well-prepared,” Atlanta safety William Moore told reporters this week. “Keeping the quarterback in the pocket. We have to go in there and keep contain on him.”
That’s easier said than done. In two games against Cam Newton, another good-running QB in a read-option scheme, the Falcons gave up huge chunks of yardage.
“I really don’t know if there’s too many coordinators around the league right now that really know how to stop it yet,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner told USA Today this week. “It’s really a trick-'em type of offense. Like it’s trick ‘em, and then we’re going deep on you. I like it. If you get your eyes out of position one time, take a false step, it can be a big play. And that’s what they’ve been doing. They’ve been taking advantage of that, and hopefully it continues.”
Former Dallas Cowboys executive and current analyst for NFL.com, Gil Brandt, wrote this week that the Falcons have to do four things:
1) Diligently study game film of Kaepernick’s starts to determine where he likes to run and when he is most likely to run. In a couple of games this season, Kaepernick’s running was held in check. Figure out what the defense did.
2) Be effective on offense to keep the ball away from San Francisco.
3) Stop the Niners on first and second downs to force them into passing situations. Even then, however, the Falcons have to keep Kaepernick in the pocket, or he could turn a third-and-long into a first down with a scramble.
4) Take the right pursuit angles when Kaepernick runs. Brandt said it seemed the Packers forgot how fast he is, which allowed him to break away.
All of Brandt’s points make sense … in theory. But actually covering all of the 49ers receivers, stuffing the running lanes, playing the read option correctly and maintaining containment on Kaepernick on every play is going to be a difficult task for the Falcons. There will be many factors that determine the winner – turnovers, mistakes, bad play calls, the effectiveness of the Falcons offense and the 49ers defense – but how Atlanta fares against Kaepernick is No. 1.
In interviews this week, some of the Atlanta defenders believe being physical with Kaepernick might be their best option. If they can punish him enough, perhaps they can weaken his resolve to run.
“If you get the opportunity to blow up somebody and make a statement, that’s what you want to do,” Moore told USA Today.
Added safety Thomas DeCoud – who might be assigned the task of watching Kaepernick on every play: “You definitely want to set the tone and send a message if he’s a guy that likes to run the ball: ‘We’re going to be here.’ You want to put some tags on him if he keeps the ball in his hands. With a quarterback of this caliber who can tote the rock like he can, you always have to be accounted for – have somebody account for him in the rush or in the back end. Somebody has to have eyes on him to make sure we keep him in the pocket.”
Kaepernick knows the Falcons might want to send a message. That’s where being fast comes in.
“I mean, run where they’re not,” he told USA Today this week. “You want to run away from where the defensive players are, and when they get close, get down.”