Falcons (4-10) at 49ers (10-4), 8:40 p.m., ESPN
49ers offense vs. Falcons defense
Last week, the Buccaneers shaped their pass rush around forcing Colin Kaepernick to move to his left. Kaepernick responded decently, but his unrefined mechanics and footwork will make him a week-to-week proposition against these sort of tightly focused defensive tactics. If the Falcons want to influence where Kaepernick moves, they’ll have to blitz, as their defensive line, unlike Tampa’s, can’t be counted on to win individual matchups off the edge.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora was recently demoted to backup duties, as the Falcons continue to insert more youth into the starting lineup. Promoted second-year man Jonathan Massaquoi is probably an upgrade anyway, as he’s bigger and just as explosive. Massaquoi’s limited experience on running downs is a concern, though, particularly against a creative, high-volume ground game like San Francisco’s.
The same concern applies to undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Both are fluid in space, but both can get tied up in blocks. Especially Worrilow, whose great tackle numbers are primarily a function of circumstance. Remember, almost every play ends in a tackle, so the stats have to go to someone. In Atlanta’s case, they go to a rookie linebacker who makes a lot of stops downfield.
Falcons offense vs. 49ers defense
Aldon Smith is gradually regaining his monstrous form. The destructiveness he showed against the Bucs last week should continue this week, as he’ll often go up against slow-footed left tackle Lamar Holmes. Lately, the Niners have used Smith more as a standup nickel defensive tackle for added dimension in their stunt game.
There’s a more alarming mismatch opposite Smith, with Ahmad Brooks (who deserves All-Pro honors this season) working against Ryan Schraeder. The undrafted rookie right tackle is playing as part of Atlanta’s end-of-the-year youth movement. Like previous starter Jeremy Trueblood, Schraeder lacks the lower body strength to sustain against bull rushers.
If—and this is a big if—Matt Ryan has time to throw, he’ll be looking for Tony Gonzalez. With a secondary that’s healthy and deeper since the emergence of corners Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright, the Niners have diversified their coverages. Will they use their depth and diversity to zero in on Gonzalez? Or, will they take their usual approach and just let Patrick Willis battle the future Hall of Famer?