Posted January 20, 2013

First Down/Fourth Down: 49ers’ defense stands its ground in second half

Atlanta Falcons, First Down/Fourth Down, NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers
Carlos Rogers prevented a handful of big plays from the Falcons' passing game. (David Goldman/AP)

Carlos Rogers prevented a handful of big plays from the Falcons’ passing game. (David Goldman/AP)

For 30 minutes on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers did not appear to have any answers for Atlanta’s explosive passing game.

Matt Ryan sat in the pocket untouched, while Julio Jones and, to a lesser extent, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez ran free downfield. The Falcons scored a touchdown on their first drive, added a field goal on their second drive and another TD on their third and then, following a punt, punched another one into the end zone just before halftime to take a 24-14 lead.

And then, the pendulum swung back the other direction, as San Francisco rallied for a 28-24 win.

The 49ers helped themselves, after falling into an early 17-0 hole, by establishing their ground game. That improvement allowed them to get their defense some rest and minimize Atlanta’s possessions — each team had the ball just five times in the second half, and the Falcons’ final “drive” consisted of a harmless last-second pass to Jones.

But the 49ers also managed to take away a (possibly hobbled) Jones after the break, too. Jones caught seven balls for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, then struggled to find any space until late in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta also shot itself in the foot on two occasions in the third quarter: White slipped as Ryan fired a pass, leading to an interception; then Ryan mishandled a snap on Atlanta’s next possession, with the 49ers recovering the fumble.

In the end, San Francisco needed its defense to make one last stop. It delivered, breaking up a pass intended for Roddy White on a 4th down deep in 49ers’ territory with just over a minute left (more on that controversial play in a moment).

The 49ers still have their issues defensively, with the Super Bowl their next stop, but they stepped up Sunday.

[si_launchNFLPopup video='83b558d3f3ab4aaba5290886ea5bfaad']HIGHLIGHTS[/si_launchNFLPopup]

First Down: The threat of Colin Kaepernick running the football.

Last week, Kaepernick ran for an NFL QB-record 181 yards (plus two touchdowns) in San Francisco’s dismantling of the Packers. On Sunday, he gained 160 fewer yards on the ground — but proved just as valuable to the 49ers’ run game.

That’s because the Falcons found themselves so concerned with the possibility of Kaepernick breaking off a big run, that they overcompensated for his presence. The result: 124 combined rushing yards for Frank Gore and LaMichael James, including three touchdowns.

All three of those scores came on similar plays, too — Gore or James coming from left to right on a read-option, and Kaepernick handing them the football. The Falcons clearly made it a focus to corral Kaepernick on those plays (and on San Francisco’s passing attempts), leaving huge gaps up the middle for Gore and outside for James.

Kaepernick rushed the ball just twice: a 23-yard scramble and a 2-yard loss on a sweep wide.

Fourth Down: Stephen Nicholas.

There will be plenty of defenders to point fingers at when the Falcons roll back Sunday’s game tape. Nicholas had a very tough day, though, and he was at the attack point for a number of San Francisco’s big runs.

Nicholas also took a costly 15-yard penalty for throwing Garrett Celek to the turf at the end of a play, which helped set up a Kaepernick-to-Vernon Davis touchdown pass.

The Falcons’ linebacker did recover Michael Crabtree’s fumble at Atlanta’s 1, but that was a rare highlight on a rough afternoon.

First Down: Julio Jones.

Jones, as most players are wont to do, tends to see his performance fall off dramatically when he’s playing at less than 100 percent. There may not be a more logical explanation for what happened to Atlanta’s receiver from the first half [si_launchNFLPopup video='c9160b17914d4faf8cbbc94913e628c6'](when he dominated)[/si_launchNFLPopup] to the second half (when he went quiet for a long stretch). Jones appeared to injure his hand early Sunday, then asked the Atlanta trainers to check out his knee before halftime.

Still, through the first two quarters, Jones played as well as a wide receiver can play. He absolutely torched the San Francisco secondary — Jones kicked off the scoring by blowing by two defenders for a 46-yard TD, then bumped Atlanta’s lead to 17-0 with a ridiculous catch over Tarell Brown.

All in all, Jones finished with 182 yards receiving and caught all 11 balls thrown to him.

Fourth Down: Aldon Smith and Justin Smith.

Aldon Smith came up with a key fumble recovery, ending an Atlanta drive, and he also provided pressure of Ryan on a couple of plays. The 49ers’ two dynamic pass rushers were kept mostly in check by the Falcons, however — something San Francisco will have to correct before Super Bowl Sunday.

Justin Smith is playing at less than 100 percent, a partially torn triceps limiting his effectiveness.

Aldon Smith’s drop-off in production recently (he has no sacks in San Francisco’s last five games) is tougher to figure. A theory, though: As an every-down player this season, Smith has played 400-plus more snaps than he did in 2011. He might just be wearing down in his second NFL year.

First Down: Ahmad Brooks and Carlos Rogers.

Brooks and Rogers led the 49ers’ second-half defensive revival.

Brooks actually finished without a tackle, but he came up with two big pass break-ups in the second half, including one on 3rd-and-4 with less than two minutes remaining. Just prior to that, Brooks also planted Ryan into the turf, leaving Ryan clutching his non-throwing shoulder.

Rogers, meanwhile, helped stabilize the 49ers’ secondary against the Falcons’ passing game. His best moment came when he prevented a touchdown by swatting away a deep ball intended for White. Later, fittingly, he brought down Jones to end the game.

Fourth Down: Atlanta’s big mistakes.

The 49ers had a pair of key misses themselves: David Akers clanged a 38-yard field goal off the upright, and Crabtree turned the ball over just inches shy of the end zone.

But Atlanta left the door open on a comeback with two key turnovers: Ryan’s interception intended for White, and then Ryan’s fumble. The Falcons then had the ball deep in San Francisco territory late, only for Ryan to fire back-to-back incompletions.

First Down: Tight ends.

Here’s hoping Tony Gonzalez comes back for one more season, because he clearly has enough left in the tank. He and Vernon Davis battled back and forth Sunday in an enthralling matchup of elite tight ends.

Gonzalez wound up catching eight balls for 78 yards, while Davis one-upped him with 106 yards receiving and a touchdown. The Falcons had no luck covering Seattle TE Zach Miller last week, either, and Davis found a lot of the same holes, coming free on crossing patterns and off of play-action.

If Gonzalez does indeed hang ‘em up, he may look back on the Falcons’ final failed fourth-down attempt with frustration. After the Falcons headed over to the bench, Gonzalez appeared to mouth to White: “I’m open.”

A Gonzalez TD grab to send Atlanta to the Super Bowl would have been a Hollywood ending. Given Gonzalez’s long wait to pick up his first playoff win (a moment that came last week), this ending somehow seems even more appropriate.

Fourth Down: Officiating controversies.

What would an NFL week be without confusing moments from the officiating crew at critical junctures of the game? Both Atlanta and San Francisco fans have something to crow about, based on the game’s final moments.

Had Atlanta pulled off its late comeback, 49ers fans likely would have jumped in line behind head coach Jim Harbaugh in crying foul on a Harry Douglas catch. On a third down in the fourth quarter, Douglas came open down the sideline, only to trip himself as he attempted to make a catch.

The Falcons’ receiver still came down with it, according to the ruling on the field. Replays showed it was close — the ball moved when Douglas hit the turf, but not enough, apparently, to overturn the play.

Moments later, on that decisive fourth-down pass by Ryan, NaVorro Bowman came close to drawing a flag for holding or pass interference. But no call came, and the 49ers punched their ticket to New Orleans.

31 comments
Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell

Uhhh...woulda, shoulda, coulda...mostly a litany of why the Falcons shoulda won if they didn't make key mistakes or had key injuries.  Falcons first half was a combination of their staff seeing holes in Niner defensive schemes and perfect execution on the part of the Falcons. The second half was about Niner adjustments and their physical defense taking a toll on the Falcons.  Niners won because they're better.

bbc
bbc

Falcons choked. There's something about Falcons that you know they will implode. They nearly did so against Seahawks and totally fell apart against 49ers in the 2nd half. Somehow you know Matt Ryan will make a bone-headed play and you know a collapse is just round the corner.

MARK84
MARK84

Looks like the best record curse did it again! Does anyone realize that the team with the best record in the NFL have not won the Super Bowl since 2002? I think having the best regular season record is like a curse.  I would not want it.

matt37
matt37

Simple-Atlanta didn't make any halftime adjustments, San Francisco did.  And this isn't last year's (or earlier this season's) 49ers.  Last year the 49ers are TOAST down 17.  If Atlanta hadn't noticed, we actually have a potent offense these days.

Rick56
Rick56

It seems when the Falcons hold a substantial lead, they relax and don't try to defend that lead. They showed it against Seattle and again with the Niners. The Falcons were lucky to win again Seattle, and with the Niners, it looked like they gave up in the second half. Now, it is time to see who is better...Jim or John...Go Niners!! 

RCH
RCH

Atlanta lost so what is the problem?

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The Falcons just can't hold a lead. They almost blew it last week. I feel bad for Ryan. A damn good quarterback but is still disrespected because of his playoff record.

As a Ravens fan I've seen the same stuff with Flacco. I assume that the football 'experts' will finally be convinced how good he is.  He's in the Super Bowl. AND SF is already posted as the favorite. I think I'm glad about that. They've been the underdog every game so far in the post season. 

JohnAlport1
JohnAlport1

To all the complaining Atlanta fans.  There was crap on both sides. But the Falcons are developing a nasty habit of doing nothing in the second half.  Geez, Ryan torched the Niners secondary in the first half.  What happened to him?  Here's a trick question?  How many points did ATL score in the second half?  Trick answer. Zero.  How did that happen?  How could Ryan lead his team to zero points in 30 minutes?  It was the same defense, a bit soft in the secondary.  Zero points!!!!  Sorry, ATL did not want to win bad enough, so they didn't.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The umps want a Yankees - Dodgers, east coast - west coast World Series.

What? Too soon?

azathoth
azathoth

I really don't care, my team was out of the playoffs about 9 months ago. But I found that helmet tap penalty and the 4th down no-call to be fairly bad officiating. But as they say, score enough points so it doesn't matter.

smokinaces
smokinaces

what a farce, the gods to be in the NFL want a Harbaugh Super Bowl.  It is disgusting how they can control the game.

smokinaces
smokinaces

What a farce, The NFL wants a Harbaugh super bowl

matt37
matt37

 @JohnAlport1 All about halftime adjustments.  SF made them, Atlanta did not.

redmch91
redmch91

 @azathoth 4th and 4 Ryan throws to a guy who's not going to get a call like that.  Also it's debatable but the guys route wasn't over 5 yds so contact is fine.  If that was Gonzalez or any of the 3 guys who shouldve been thrown the ball instead, they prob get the call.  The hands to the face was ticky-tak, but I've seen QB's across the board get that call more times than I can stand.  The Harry Douglas catch on the other end pretty much made up for that imo.

CaryA.Cardinale
CaryA.Cardinale

 @smokinaces

 did you complain last year when the freaking 9-7 outscored for the year giants clear fumble was ruled a non fumble in the nfc championship game? a turnover that would have slammed the door on the giants?

EnderLyon
EnderLyon

 @smokinaces Best team won, even after they spotted you 17 points.....take your loss like a man...

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @smokinaces So convinced of your paranoid theory that you had to post about it twice?  

Rick56
Rick56

 @smokinaces If that is the case, why didn't it happened last year????

JohnAlport1
JohnAlport1

 @smokinaces Actually, the NFL wanted Niners - Patriots for a lot more advertising revenue.  I'm tired of the Harbaugh story already and it hasn't really begun yet.

azathoth
azathoth

 @redmch91 Fair points.  Somehow I missed Douglas' catch (I'll have to catch the highlights.).  Ah well, I'm glad NE lost, though.

smokinaces
smokinaces

u watch the game, the refs called a swat from a defensive guy a penalty but a rape on Ryan nothing?  Then on forth down another rape by SF no call?  Im a Giant fan in NJ but this was nothing but a control job by the networks.  They want an east cost west coast game.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

 @JohnAlport1  @smokinaces Yeah John, I'm a Ravens fan and even I have to agree with you. We'll hear from the parents, the wives, the in-laws, etc. Get used to it.

matt37
matt37

 @azathoth  @redmch91 Agree with you guys-it all comes out in the wash.  OK, not always, but I think it did in the NFC matchup today.A lot of times, like the personal foul with the tap to Kap's helmet, was the right call.  We might not like the RULE, but the CALL was correct.  Sad but true, it's just the NFL.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @smokinaces You are whining.  No rapes occurred.   Your claim that the NFL wants an east coast vs west coach matchup?  Amusing.  Do you have evidence to support your paranoia?  In the last 20 years there have been three west coast teams in the Super Bowl & the NFL has done just fine.  Regardless of the teams in the game the Super Bowl is big business.

matt37
matt37

 @A.F.Davis  @smokinaces I'm a 49er fan and I didn't think that personal foul to Kap's facemask was a bad play.  The rule sucks, but the play was called correctly.  Sorry, you just can't make that contact with a QB's face.  Them's the rules!

A.F.Davis
A.F.Davis

 @smokinaces You're an idiot..."The NFL fixes games man!"...I bet you think 9/11 was an inside job too right?  

 

The 49ers were the better team, Plain and Simple!

redmch91
redmch91

 @smokinaces Ryan was hit hard but what would make it a penalty?  Defenders momentum and no hands to the face.  and 4th down Ryan throws to who?  A.  That's a bad decision by the qb when you have the best TE to ever play the game.  B. The throw was behind the receiver who still had a chance to make the catch.  Not sure why that's pass intereference...and the guys route wasn't deep enough for the first down regardless.

CaryA.Cardinale
CaryA.Cardinale

 @smokinaces

 did you complain last year when the fraking 9-7 outscored for the year giants clear fumble was ruled a non fumble in the nfc championship game? a turnover that would have slammed the door on the giants?