NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Falcons least-penalized team in NFL
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
SANTA CLARA — In a typical Sunday-to-Sunday cycle, Wednesday is when an NFL team begins to install that week's game plan in earnest. Before filing into meeting rooms to look at video cut-ups, though, the Atlanta Falcons make a habit of conducting other business.
“We go over penalties as an entire team every Wednesday when we walk in this building,” Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said on a conference call Thursday. “So we know who has the most penalties on the team, we know who has the least amount of penalties on the team.”
For the record, tackle Tyson Clabo and defensive end John Abraham shared the team lead with five penalties each in 2012. That's not a lot of flaggage — which is typical of these Falcons.
Coach Mike Smith's team very quietly established 16-game NFL records this season with all-time lows in penalties (55) and penalty yardage (415). For the sake of comparison, the 49ers were penalized 109 times for 960 yards. Think it might have been a fluke? The 2010 Falcons had the third-fewest penalties in NFL history, with 58.
So the 49ers might stifle Atlanta's running attack this Sunday. Colin Kaepernick might hypnotize the Falcons with his galloping runs as he did the Packers last weekend, and Aldon Smith may rediscover his sack mojo. But if the NFC championship game comes down to a momentum-swinging penalty, the Niners are likely to come out on the losing end.
Atlanta's ability to stay within the rules is especially telling when you break it down by type of infraction. According to the site nflpenalties.com, NFL teams averaged 7.84 defensive pass interference penalties this year; the Falcons had one. The league averages for false starts and offensive holding — two calls frequently directed at the offensive line — were 19.25 and 19.97, respectively; the Falcons had 11 false starts and nine offensive holds. They were hit for delay of game once; the average NFL team did it 4.03 times.
The 49ers players might not know all the numbers, but they can recognize a fundamentally sound team when they see one on film.
“I think you definitely notice stuff like that because it shows up in other places, too — not just penalties, but their alignments, their assignments,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “It shows up all over the field. So definitely a disciplined team.”
“It's very important to us because at the phase where we're at right now, penalties can cost you, you know?” Robinson said. “Because anything you get right now is gonna be tough. So we understand that penalties can cost you, and we take pride in being the least-penalized team in the NFL. I think it's helped us win a bunch of football games. We let the other teams make mistakes, and we just go out there and try to play penalty-free and play a confident game.”
The subject is of particular importance to the 49ers because, despite all their success this season, they have sometimes struggled to keep penalties down. San Francisco had the fifth-most penalty yards in the NFL this season, and the seventh-most penalties.
In the locker room, opinion was split as to how much those figures matter.
“I think it's just guys playing hard,” Miller said. “I think a lot of our penalties come off big hits. I just think guys are playing hard and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he's “never happy with penalties,” and 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin agreed.
“No penalty is an acceptable penalty, so that's definitely not the mentality here,” Goodwin said.
There are a couple of specific transgressions you may want to keep an eye on in the championship game. One would be false starts along the SF offensive line, always a concern for a visiting team playing in a domed stadium.
The Georgia Dome decibels are likely to be through the roof Sunday, especially if the Falcons start fast. The 49ers were called for 17 false starts this season, paced by left guard Mike Iupati with four (again, math by nflpenalties.com).
And then there is the Dashon Goldson factor. Goldson, a physical free safety, tends to creep right to the edge of good, legal play — and sometimes beyond. He was hit with four flags for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties this season, and two for unnecessary roughness. One came last week when he lowered his head and drilled Green Bay running back DuJuan Harris at the end of a short run.
“It was a good call by the refs,” said Goldson, who according to justfines.com was fined five times for $52,500 by the NFL this season, including $36,750 for on-field violations. “I mean, I looked at it again. It was a good call — if it was a helmet-to-helmet it was a good call. It wasn't late.”
The penalty gave the Packers a first down at the San Francisco 31-yard line, and they cashed in 55 seconds later on a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones that tied the game. That's a sequence of events the 49ers would just as soon avoid against Atlanta, though Goldson insists his coaches are fine with his style of play.
“That's just part of football,” he said. “Coaches never try to stop me. They know what kind of player I am, and I know what kind of player I am. I'm not in there trying to kill anybody or hurt anybody, but at the same time I am trying to win a football game for my team.”
Winning this next football game might require cutting down on mistakes, including penalties, because the 49ers can't expect the Falcons to give many back in return. And they probably can't expect the officials to ignore Atlanta's recent history. As 11-year veteran Leonard Davis knows, a reputation for penalty-free football can't hurt a team.
“Yeah, they let calls slip,” the offensive lineman said. “It happens. I mean, I've seen it happen. It's no different than in basketball. You got Michael Jordan, like Michael Jordan can't commit a foul. Kobe Bryant can't commit a foul.”
Sometimes it seems like the Atlanta Falcons can't commit a foul. The 49ers, seemingly favored by more points each day, hope that doesn't become a great equalizer Sunday.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.