NFC Championship Game 2013: Dealing with the Falcons high-flying attack

Gregory Shamus

The Atlanta Falcons are among the league leaders in their use of three-wide receiver sets. We take a look at what that means for the 49ers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh met with the media on Monday, and as would be expected, he had a fair bit of praise about the Atlanta Falcons. He was more detailed about the offense, as he spoke about some of Matt Ryan's many skills, along with the Falcons strong work on the perimeter with their dangerous wide receiver corps.

According to ESPN Stats & Info Group, the Falcons are seventh in the NFL in using three-wide receiver sets (54.1% of the time). This does not factor in when Tony Gonzalez is in the slot or split out wide, which happened 31.2% of the time. I don't know how those overlap, but it is safe to say the 49ers will see a whole lot of three receiver/Gonzalez sets on Sunday.


MORE: 49ers-Falcons story stream | 49ers-Falcons recent history

This also means we'll see a lot of the nickel. Chris Culliver is the 49ers third cornerback, taking over the outside, while Carlos Rogers moves in over the slot receiver. When Gonzalez is working in the slot, it will be interesting to see how the 49ers cover him. He is likely too physically imposing for Rogers to handle him. Patrick Willis is likely to get a lot of work against Gonzalez (Bowman also to a lesser extent), so the 49ers will have some options depending on what looks the Falcons present.

The 49ers inside linebackers are extremely talented, but at times they can be inconsistent in their coverage of linebackers. They are facing one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history this weekend, and he is playing as well as anyone can expect from a 36-year old tight end. The 49ers linebackers, safeties and corners will have their hands full.

Although the Falcons can air it out deep plenty, they seem to present a bit more of a "traditional" look compared to the Seattle Seahawks. I think both teams would have been tough to play, but the Falcons at least seem a bit more conventional. They'll ground it out with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, they'll look deep to Julio Jones and Roddy White, and they'll chew up turf over the middle with the receivers and Tony Gonzalez.

Playing this game on the Georgia Dome turf could make for a potential track meet given the offensive weapons the 49ers themselves present. This past weekend was all about the offensive production, and this coming weekend could very well present something of the same. The 49ers defense stepped up big in the second half against the Packers, and they'll need to build on that momentum against a tough Falcons offense.

The 49ers are favored in this game, but the Falcons O always gives them a puncher's chance. Add in playing on their home turf, and they have plenty more than just a puncher's chance.

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