Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Winter Feast, Part Three.

By John Winter

The game was definitely a game of two halves. Facing a 17 point deficit going into the second half the San Francisco 49ers certainly faced an uphill task.
However, on the 49ers first scoring drive that ended on the 2 minute warning cracks had already begun to show in the Falcons defence with a telling sign being the three plays out of seven being Vernon Davis receptions.

Being at the game it was a lot easier to see the strategies of both teams on the field (like attending any other football game live), not being tied to the view of the TV camera you get to survey the whole pitch and take note of more subtle elements of the game such as the secondary and trench battles that are key parts of the game that you wouldn’t necessarily notice on TV.
This was very much true of my experience of the NFC championship game, as from the offset it was clear that even though 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick would not affect the game so much with his legs he had caused the Falcons to use a predominantly zone-coverage based defensive game plan to ensure that he wouldn’t run riot like he did against the Packers in the previous playoff game.
On pretty much every play the Falcon pass defenders would drop off in the zone shell type formation, never turning their backs and giving Kaeprnick an opportunity to scramble.
The Falcons also rarely blitzed, playing predominantly from base 3-4 and an offset three man line formation with John Abraham effectively playing defensive end but standing up.
This hesitation to break the ‘shell’ of zone coverage made it easier for Kaepernick to pick the holes in the zone, and whilst previously in the season the Falcons had rolled defenders across into different positions and zones this scheme was little used against the 49ers in favour a more passive style.
Like the previous game against the Seahawks it was the opposing team’s tight end that would be one of the biggest stars. Vernon Davis, finishing with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown this time taking the stage in exploitation of the predominantly zone scheme and most often being covered by a slower linebacker when the Falcons were in man coverage.
Another matchup that was particularly good to watch was Justin Smith and how much of an impact he could make on the Falcons offensive line whilst still recovering from his triceps injury. Though Smith was an ever-present in the run game and was a lot more prominent than his four tackles suggests, taking up blockers and always taking his offensive lineman backwards, he was not so prolific in the pass game, Smith did have his moments where he pressured Matt Ryan but like his namesake Aldon Smith and the rest of the 49ers pass rush that only recorded 1 sack, he struggled.
A thing of beauty though was seeing Matt Ryan run the no-huddle offence. Producing a touchdown to close out the first half and nearly securing a game winning effort at the end of the 4th, Ryan had complete charge of the offense and was in full control of his players. Watching Falcon players quickly trot backwards and forwards across the field was like watching a puppet master carefully and efficiently pulling the strings, I could just imagine a madden-like display in his head showing all the routes and coverages that the receivers and defensive backs would be running.
Though the partisan Georgia Dome fans kept cheering their team on after a great start, it was clear that as the game wore on the momentum of the game was shifting more and more towards the 49ers. With the Falcons committing two turnovers and the San Francisco offence notching up more and more big plays it was clear that the 49ers taking the lead was only a matter of time.
The final drive, the Falcons last ditch effort to win the game, ultimately failed to yield a touchdown, but for myself as a Falcons fan the game was unforgettable, and the occasion of watching the team at home with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line was incredible.
The sheer magnitude of the occasion for all the other Atlanta Falcons fans who were witnessing their first ever championship game made the atmosphere special, to be part of such an occasion was a privilege and one that I will never forget.

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