49ers defense faces triple threat of Atlanta receivers
Published: Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 9:41 a.m.
SANTA CLARA — Speaking to reporters last week, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was asked whether Julio Jones, Atlanta's second-year wide receiver, might have eclipsed Roddy White, Atlanta's more decorated eighth-year wide receiver.
“They're both really good,” Fangio said. “They've got size, they've got speed. They can run good routes, they catch it well and they're both good threats running after the catch. I think to quibble over which one of those two is better, you're cutting hairs one way or the other.”
Add tight end Tony Gonzalez to the equation, and those hairs are getting sliced pretty thin.
The 49ers have faced some challenging receiving corps this year — Green Bay (twice), Detroit, New Orleans and New England. But they haven't faced a triple threat quite like the Falcons'.
With White catching 92 passes for 1,351 yards, Jones grabbing 79 for 1,198 and Gonzalez hauling in 93 for 930, the Falcons' starting trio combined for 3,479 yards. That was the most in the NFL for two wide receivers and a tight end, ahead of Dallas' Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten (3,364) and the Saints' Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham (3,177).
Contrast those numbers with the 49ers' top three. Michael Crabtree (1,105), Mario Manningham (449) and Vernon Davis (548) combined for a relatively pedestrian 2,102 yards.
“It's a big task, it's a big challenge ... and it's been designed that way by them,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said.
“They've put together a tremendous receiving unit that you can't pay too much attention to just one guy because several can hurt you. They're good.”
They're better than good. Start with White and Jones, a pair of wideouts who know how to use size to their advantage. White is 6 feet, 211 pounds. Jones is even burlier at 6-3, 220. And yet both have dangerous straight-line speed, especially on the artificial FieldTurf of the Georgia Dome.
White is the most productive receiver in Falcons history with 8,725 career yards, and in 2012 he became just the fifth NFL pass-catcher ever to post three consecutive seasons of 90-plus receptions and 1,200-plus yards.
And yet it was Jones who made the Pro Bowl after leading his team with 10 touchdown catches. Niners cornerback Chris Culliver said this week that he believes Jones is the superior of the two receivers, and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer agrees.
“I think Julio is really the fear-factor guy,” Dilfer said. “When you're a dynamic passing game, you have a skill-position guy that creates fear in the defense. Like how they line up changes because that guy's on the field, and that's Julio. ... A lot of eyeballs, a lot of attention on where Julio lines up. They know on the defensive side if they make the slightest mistake with how they line up, what their personnel shift is, what the personnel grouping is, their spacing, that they're one play away from just getting gashed.”
Dilfer loves Jones' explosiveness, his willingness to fight for a ball in the air and his ability to get off a jam at the line of scrimmage. And his routes have gotten a lot better in his second season.
“Last year there were four or five things he did well. Everything else, kind of not quite sure if he would be in the right spot at the right time,” said Dilfer, who spent the last of his 13 NFL seasons in San Francisco. “Now they move him around. He's very precise in his route running.”
And yet defenses can't dramatically swing their protection to Jones, because White remains more than capable of having a huge game.
“Roddy (is) the best auxiliary receiver in the league, because he really could be a (No.) 1. But in this offense, he serves as a 2,” Dilfer said. “And he gets the benefit of a lot of that attention that Julio gets from the defense. They run a lot of stuff where Julio will take the top off the coverage, for lack of a better term, or generate a lot of interest by the defense, and Roddy's explosive enough and crafty enough to find those spots.”
For good measure, throw in Gonzalez and his 1,242 career receptions. Only Jerry Rice ever caught more. Gonzo and Rice are the only NFL players to record 15 seasons with 50-plus receptions. He and Tim Brown are the only guys with 10 straight years of 70 or more. Gonzalez said at the start of the 2012 season that it would be his last in the NFL. He is sticking to that intention, even after setting a Falcons tight end record with 93 catches.
“He can still do it,” 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson said. “He did a good job for his football team on third downs, and those possession downs, getting open and scoring touchdowns. So we can't overlook him, of course. He's a big factor in the offense, and we gotta go out there and put a stop to him.”
Easier said than done, because Atlanta's three receiving threats work so well in concert. The 49ers hope they can shut down the Falcons' inconsistent running game, force them into passing situations and apply some heat to quarterback Matt Ryan, disrupting the timing of the pass routes. San Francisco will also need a solid game from corners Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Culliver.
Strong safety Donte Whitner thinks they're up to the challenge.
“I believe they have two unique talents that are big guys that can work intermediate route, that can go deep,” Whitner said when asked about White and Jones. “But at the same time, we faced guys like this all year — Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall. We've faced the Who's Who of the National Football League — and tight ends.”
As Goldson put it: “We faced a lot of good receivers throughout this year and it hasn't stopped yet. We know we still got a lot of work to do.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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