The more I think about this game, the more I think that I think there will be a poor ending for Atlanta, and it will become very clear, very quickly.

The Falcons were kind enough to play a quarter of their regular-season schedule this year against highly mobile quarterbacks, and generally those meetings ended badly. Earlier this week I looked back on the carnage that was the Atlanta defense during those games, and although there was a glaring exception (holding Robert Griffin III to just seven rushing yards), the read-option offense used by Carolina led to repeatedly watching Cam Newton go for delightful Sunday jogs into wide open green grass. Over those two games, Newton had 202 rushing yards and two touchdowns, with one of those scores coming on a career long 72-yard run.

Then even if we ignore the success of Newton and to a lesser extent Michael Vick this year against a Falcons front seven that struggled to maintain gap discipline, there’s the matter of John Abraham’s ankle injury, the significance of which can’t be repeated enough during the buildup to this game. A week ago it was the 49ers with a potentially crippling injury in their front four, as Justin Smith was playing through a partially torn triceps (yeah, that still hasn’t healed). Abraham was a limited participant in practice yesterday, and he’ll surely receive minimal work throughout the week before inevitably being slapped with the ol’ questionable/game-time decision tag, and playing a reduced role Sunday.

For the Falcons, that’s downright petrifying, because much of containing — or at least limiting — the damage done by a mobile quarterback in a read-option scheme is done by having a defensive end who can counter with the proper reads, and then react using his quick-footed acceleration, and raw speed. A healthy Abraham can do that, but Abraham won’t really be Abraham at all Sunday. And in truth, Kaepernick has made fools out of some elite edge rushers recently, with Clay Matthews looking like a drunken sailor a week ago when the 49ers QB set the single-game quarterback rushing record.

Now that I’ve ensured no Falcons fan is reading the rest of this post (REMAIN CALM), let’s look at some surface-y numbers, and then do some more ranting and deeper numerical opining.

Falcons offense 49ers defense
Total yards P/Game 369.1 (8th) 294.4 (3rd)
Passing yards P/Game 281.8 (3rd) 200.2 (4th)
Rushing yards P/Game 87.3 (29th) 94.2 (4th)
Falcons defense 49ers offense
Total yards P/Game 365.6 (24th) 361.8 (11th)
Passing yards P/Game 242.2 (23rd) 206.1 (23th)
Rushing yards P/Game 123.2 (21th) 155.7 (4th)

The concern about Atlanta’s ability to defend the run is already evident, and then when Matt Ryan et al are on the field, it’s pretty much strength on strength.

Thoughts and Rants

  • In addition to his carefree running, Newton also had a passer rating of 114.7 over his two games against Atlanta, with 502 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air, leading his Panthers to 58 points.
  • Taking that further, the Falcons allowed 339 rushing yards to quarterbacks this year on 38 attempts. The arithmetic on that leads to 8.9 yards per attempt to the position, the worst rate in the league.
  • And what’s especially scary is that when quarterbacks have kept the ball on read-option plays against the Falcons, they’ve gained 20.7 yards per rush, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Not a joke.
  • At least they’re pretty consistent, and the Falcons spread their generosity on the ground to any runner while allowing 4.9 YPC overall (29th).
  • What’s also a little troubling is the lack of pressure Atlanta can bring, even with a healthy Abraham. Kaepernick has been sacked once every 14.6 drop backs. Meanwhile, the Falcons ranked 29th in sacks, taking the opposing quarterback down once every 19 drop backs.
  • Last night I had an e-mail exchange with Alen Dumonjic, our resident game tape guru, regarding his ideas for the rest of this week. Yes, despite all efforts to convey a sense of chaos around here, some organization and thought goes into putting these words on your computer screen. Anywho, Dumonjic noted that Michael Crabtree excels at racking up yards after the catch, and the Falcons’ corners are poor tacklers. Dumonjic will be around tomorrow to dig deeper into the implications of that mismatch tomorrow, but for now, know this: he’s right on Crabtree. Kaepernick’s new favorite target finished seventh during the regular season in YAC with 465 yards, ahead of other really fast guys like Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb. That means nearly half (42.1 percent) of Crabtree’s total yardage came after he caught a football.
  • For some perspective on that rate, Calvin Johnson had more YAC than Crabtree (517), but that was only 26.3 percent of his overall yardage. Ditto for Andre Johnson (472 YAC, which is 29.5 percent of his overall yardage), and Demaryius Thomas (512, 35.7 percent).
  • Alright, so we know what will likely happen when Kaepernick scrambles (very little defense), and when Crabtree catches the ball in space (running…lots of running). But what about when the Niners run the ball more conventionally using either Frank Gore, LaMichael James, or Kendall Hunter? Welp, thankfully the Falcons kindly provided us with a lot of precedent there too.
  • As you can see in that handy table above, the 49ers had a top five rushing offense overall during the regular season. This year the Falcons played three of the four other top tier rushing offenses (Washington, Seattle, Kansas City), and they gave up 106 rushing yards per game to running backs, at an average of 4.4 yards per carry. There’s recent encouragement to be found, though, as much of that yardage came from Jamaal Charles and Alfred Morris. Last week Marshawn Lynch was held to only 46 yards on 16 carries. It was one of only three times that Lynch’s single-game rushing total dipped below 50 yards this year.
  • Flipping that around, we know that despite a resurgence from Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers last week that may or may not be a vicious outlier for an offense that ranked 29th in rushing, the Falcons have mostly plodded. That’s expected to continue again this weekend, since only a wagon that’s on fire rushes for yardage of any significance against the Niners. Atlanta faced a top five run defense four other times (Washington, Denver, and Tampa twice), and that ended in only 294 rushing yards over those four games. That’s a pace of 73.5 yards per game, and 3.1 yards per carry.
  • In the passing game, the advantage for the Falcons lies in their wideouts, with this matchup not quite as difficult as the Richard Sherman/Brandon Browner shutdown duo from a week ago. But it’s not easy either.
  • The starting CBs for San Fran are Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, and as ESPN’s John Clayton noted earlier this week, they both have solid completion percentages on balls thrown in their direction. Of the 90 attempts he faced, Rogers has allowed 55 completions for 575 yards this year, while Brown allowed 43 completions on 96 attempts for 722 yards.
  • Looking at Atlanta’s corners, Clayton also observed that Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel have combined to allow only three touchdowns throughout this season.
  • Even if they’re gashed by Crabtree with yards after the catch and Kaep’s mobility buys time and creates open throwing lanes, there’s hope yet, you Dirty Birdz. A bending without breaking mentality could emerge in the Falcons’ defensive backfield, as they’ve been efficient in the red zone, allowing the fewest passing touchdowns during the regular season (14). Atlanta also had the fifth best passer rating allowed (77.1), and the fifth fewest points allowed per game (18.7).