The first half of the NFC Championship was exhausting to watch. An ideal start for the 49ers would have been forcing a three-and-out on defense and embarking on a long offensive drive to silence the crowd. Unfortunately, the defense had a rough time handling Atlanta’s three big targets and simply couldn’t get off the field.
As expected, San Francisco struggled to stop the Falcons receivers. They were everything I warned they would be and more, and unfortunately the 49ers made a lot of the same mistakes as the Seahawks early on in this game. Carlos Rogers was the only 49ers cornerback to post a positive overall rating on Pro Football Focus, but Tarell Brown’s -0.2 and Chris Culliver’s -1.0 weren’t horrible outcomes considering the wideouts they went up against.
The shakiest defenders in coverage were Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Although Whitner gave up no receptions on only one target, Goldson was targeted four times in this game, giving up all four of his targets for 92 yards. Goldson’s -3.0 overall grade on PFF was the worst for all 49ers defenders and in the bottom of his performances this season with the Miami game (-3.1) and the tie to St. Louis (-3.2).
Julio Jones’ first touchdown caught Goldson peeking in the backfield.
Brown is in charge of watching the mid-range portion of the receivers route. He presses Jones while the Falcons WR makes his way past Brown and into Goldson’s shell, but the safety has other things on his mind.
Goldson bites on the play fake to Jason Snelling and does nothing to stop his receiver. You can only speculate as to whether he thought Whitner would be there to take away the deep part of the field, but the coverage was blown one way or another. Without any help over the top, it’s an easy touchdown for the Falcons to open up the game.
On Jones’ second touchdown, the 49ers are in Cover 2 Man. Jones is Brown’s responsibility on this play, with Whitner providing support over the top. Brown plays Jones’ route perfectly, but as soon as Ryan sees single coverage he throws the ball up for his receiver in the end zone. Brown is draped on Jones all the way there, but the size difference is just too much for him.
This is impossible to defend, especially when a receiver has five inches on his defender.
So where was Brown’s help on this play? In the below .gif you can see both Whitner and Goldson playing free in the middle of the field, but Whitner shades towards the hashmarks on Ryan’s pump fake and ends up too far away from Brown to be of any help.
Whitner was of little help on Tony Gonzalez’s touchdown too:
Patrick Willis is one-on-one with the veteran tight end on this play. Gonzalez initially runs his route like he’s looking for the pass away from the hashes, drifting slightly to his left before cutting back inside. Willis ends up out of position to defend the pass after falling for Gonzalez’s move. Meanwhile, Whitner drops back a couple steps into the end zone, breaking for Gonzalez once the ball is in the air. He has no play on Gonzalez’s right side and ends up being too late to defend the pass coming from behind the tight end’s left shoulder.
The 49ers will face similar issues with the Ravens. While Joe Flacco may not be the same kind of quarterback Ryan is, his receivers can burn the 49ers the same way the Falcons did. While Goldson let Julio Jones run free because he was worried about the run, San Francisco can’t afford to give Torrey Smith the same leeway. He’s just too fast. This will cause problems for San Francisco, especially because the Ravens have a more solid rushing attack than the Falcons.
Anquan Boldin is my biggest concern. He may be the most dangerous receiver on the field next Sunday from a matchup standpoint. He can use his size and physicality to go up and get jump balls like Jones did over Brown on his second touchdown.
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta beat Willis for a touchdown in the 49ers’ Thanksgiving battle with the Ravens last year. Even with one of the stronger sets of cornerbacks and linebackers in the NFL, the 49ers will need Goldson and Whitner to have a stronger game if they want to stop the Ravens’ passing attack.