The Falcons need a miracle to beat the 49ers this Sunday. That's the consensus of NFL critics. The Falcons need a fire alarm to go off in the 49ers' hotel at 3 a.m. They need the entire 49ers team — players and coaches — to evacuate the building and catch the flu as they stand outside shivering in their pajamas.
Forget that. The Falcons are a terrific team, a 14-win team with pride. If they can accomplish the following three keys to the game, they will have a puncher's chance to beat the 49ers.
1. Be the aggressor
The 49ers are the Mike Tyson of the NFL. They hurt teams and they scare them, sometimes before the game even starts. Some teams are afraid to try running up the middle near Justin Smith or throwing over the middle near Dashon Goldson. The only teams that have beaten the 49ers this season are the teams that went right at them and punched back.
The Falcons can punch the 49ers by running 250-pound tailback Michael Turner up the middle. If the Falcons can establish him on the first drive, as the Rams did with Steven Jackson, the Seahawks did with Marshawn Lynch and the Vikings did with Adrian Peterson, that will open up the play-action passing game and take away the 49ers' bullying mystique.
2. Limit Kaepernick
Make Colin Kaepernick stay in the pocket. On the read-option play, make Kaepernick hand off the ball to a back up the middle. On passing downs (third down and second and long), spy Kaepernick. The Falcons should assign Sean Weatherspoon, who runs a 4.53 40-yard dash and is the team's fastest linebacker, to follow Kaepernick wherever he goes. Do not let Kaepernick scramble for first downs. If he does scramble, hit him as hard as you can.
3. Take away the deep ball
Try to take away Kaepernick's deep passes by playing zone coverage. Make him play like Alex Smith. Make Kaepernick complete short passes from the pocket. Make the 49ers' offense drive the field in 12 or more plays without making mistakes, a difficult feat. For all the explosive plays the 49ers make, they also make mistakes. The 49ers are one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, they have problems getting the play called before the play clock expires (especially on the road) and they frequently botch snaps. If the Falcons cannot accomplish those three things, they really could turn into a bunch of dead ducks.
The 49ers, on the other hand, can beat the Falcons any number of ways. But San Francisco absolutely must accomplish the following three things. If they don't, they're in trouble.
1. Run the ball
In every 49ers' loss this season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman used a pass-heavy game plan. In the NFC Championship last season against the Giants, Roman called only 16 runs for Frank Gore.
The Falcons allowed 4.8 yards per carry this season — 28th in the NFL. Gore needs to run the ball at least 20 times against the Falcons. Roman needs to keep using Kaepernick as a runner. He's the best running back on the team right now.
The Falcons will try to force Kaepernick to hand the ball off on the read option — that's what they successfully did with Russell Wilson last Sunday. The Falcons told their defensive ends to stand still near the edge so Wilson couldn't run around the outside. Unlike the Seahawks, the 49ers use a lead blocker on their read-option plays. The 49ers should be able to block the Falcons' defensive ends, and Kaepernick should be able to run at will. When Kaepernick does run, he must slide before he takes any hits. The Falcons already have said they will take their shots at him.