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Falcons' Nolan has hands full with 49ers


This was not the game we wanted. I'm being presumptuous speaking for you. I didn't want the 49ers to play Atlanta in the NFC Conference championship game. I wanted Seattle. I'm assuming you did, too.

That story line would have been an instant classic — two monsters of the NFC West facing each other the third time. Kind of like Ali vs. Frazier, Seattle and San Francisco, maybe the two best teams in the NFC, duking it out in Candlestick, and we'd have Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll and their personal rivalry and animosity and what's your deal.

But we didn't get that game. Life has a way of lousing up great story lines. Life also has a way of presenting new story lines.

Get this, the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons is our old friend Mike Nolan. Some of you may be snickering at that name. He got fired as head coach in San Francisco and may be a joke around here — although not in the Mike-Singletary joke category.

Let me start by saying Nolan is a nice man and I like him — same goes for Singletary. While Singletary never made his bones as any kind of football coach, Nolan most certainly has. He is not a good head coach, but he is a dynamite defensive coordinator, one of the best in the business. Football people I know have the greatest respect for Nolan as a coordinator. You need to understand that.

So, a story line emerges — fired head coach, spurned head coach has a chance to redeem himself against his former team, against many players he drafted, has a chance to send Atlanta to the Super Bowl at the expense of his former employer.

Not bad as story lines go.

You can bet Nolan is smarter than Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator who did such a miserable job against the Niners Saturday night. It's like Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy never heard of Colin Kaepernick or his option runs. They sure couldn't stop Kaepernick and they never made a single adjustment at halftime. Whoever runs the Packers should fire those two.

Nolan has seen the read-option and, believe me, he knows what to do. But there is a big difference between knowing and actually doing. Can the Falcons' defense stand up to the 49ers' offense which has become so powerful?

No.

The Seahawks were hopelessly behind the Falcons and almost came back and won — frankly, should have won. So, we know the Falcons' defense is penetrable. And we know Nolan faces the highest degree of difficulty to make them perform against the 49ers.

To be specific: A Mike-Nolan defense is known for being hyper-disciplined, and that's a good thing. But the threat of the Pistol-option package — Kaepernick's specialty — limits the coverages Nolan will call.

Why?

He needs an extra defender for the quarterback. That's a given. The Falcons will need someone extra who makes sure Kaepernick doesn't gain 181 yards rushing as he did against the Packers' defense, which had the tensile strength of moist Kleenex. The Falcons do not often use an extra defender for the quarterback and, in fact, that defensive concept is atypical in the NFL. Which means the Falcons will be stealing from one area of their defense to bolster another.

Nolan certainly will use a "spy" against Kaepernick in nickel and dime pass defenses. This is essential because, when Nolan calls blitzes, all other defenders are turning around and running with eligible receivers down the field.

And get this. The spy — whoever the poor guy is — can't be a slug. I mean, it's great for Nolan to assign a spy and tell him, "Go get Colin." But when Kaepernick starts running — he's very fast and very big — the spy actually needs to catch him. Good luck. If the spy can't run as fast as Kaepernick, he is a dead spy, more like a ghost.

Kaepernick creates all kinds of problems for nice men like Nolan.

Nolan faces another disadvantage — no fault of his. The Atlanta defensive front is quick and athletic — a good thing. It's just that it's relatively small by NFL behemoth standards. It certainly is smaller than other fronts the Niners faced this season. And that means Joe Staley and his pals will have a size and strength advantage, and should push those relative pee-wees around.

All of this tells you the Niners lucked out by getting the Falcons instead of the Seahawks, even if it's a road game. And it means they almost surely will break Mike Nolan's heart yet again. Niners by six.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.