49ers key matchup No. 1: Kaepernick vs. Belichick

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49ers key matchup No. 1: Kaepernick vs. Belichick

This is the final part in a series that spotlights three 49ers-Patriots matchups to watch Sunday, 5:20 p.m. (NBC-TV), at Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.

49ers QB Colin Kaeperick vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Tale of the tape
Kaepernick (7): 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, second season, Nevada
Belichick: 165-62 (.727) record in 13 seasons with Patriots

When 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made the decision to replace veteran Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback, this game on the schedule loomed large.

It's not necessarily that Kaepernick gives the 49ers the best chance of going on the road and defeating the New England Patriots. And it's not that this a "must-win" for the 49ers, who own a 1 1/2-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West with three games remaining.

In making the switch at quarterback, Harbaugh's actions said he believes Kaepernick will give the 49ers the best chance to win in the playoffs after gaining experience with seven regular-season starts to finish the year.

And Sunday night's game in Foxboro, Mass., should provide Kaepernick with the best learning opportunity any young quarterback can experience.

"It's a big challenge," Harbaugh said. "(It's a) big task for our entire football team. I think everybody looks at it that way."

There's no other way to look at it.

Kaepernick has made four consecutive starts, during which time the 49ers have compiled a 3-1 record. Kaepernick lit it up in his first NFL start, a 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Kaepernick's passing yards have fallen in each start to 231 at New Orleans, to 208 at St. Louis, to 185 against Miami. He did not throw a touchdown pass in the past two games. But he also did not throw an interception, either.

He has proven to be as much of a threat with his legs. Kaepernick has rushed for 351 yards (7.6 average) and five touchdowns on the season.

"He's an explosive player, he can make big plays," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The offensive system they run with him in there has the element of the option, the pistol offense, that type of thing. It's another thing to prepare for."

And there is little doubt the Patriots (10-3) will be prepared. In fact, the 49ers need New England to be at its schematic best on Sunday to prepare Kaepernick for anything he could face once the playoffs begin.

"They give you a lot of different looks on defense," Kaepernick said. "You just have to be prepared for it. You have to be ready for their disguises and different coverages, different fronts they're going to give you.

"It'll be a great challenge. It's a great opportunity to show what we're capable of."

After averaging 14.8 yards per pass completion in his first two starts, Kaepernick was limited by the Rams and Dolphins to mostly underneath pass that averaged only 10.1 yards per completion.

The Rams pressured Kaepernick, preventing him time in the pocket to showcase his powerful arm with passes down the field. Belichick is sure to come up with a plan against Kaepernick that will provide a valuable lesson for the remainder of the season.

Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

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Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

There is no shortage of blame to go around for the Atlanta Falcons’ collapse in Super Bowl 51.

The Falcons built a 28-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter and let it slip away, ultimately falling to the New England Patriots, 34-28, in overtime.

Matt Ryan voiced one previously undisclosed factor in the collapse this week in an interview with Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, pointing the finger at the new coach of the 49ers.

Kyle Shanahan has been the focus of a lot of the blame, but critique from the league MVP was a new one.

The Falcons quarterback faulted his former offensive coordinator for taking too much time to relay the play calls. Ryan said he did not have enough time to change any of the plays – presumably checking out of called pass plays to run the ball.

Here’s what Ryan told Prisco:

"Kyle's play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in. As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you're talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, 'There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.' You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

"With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You're not being aggressive not running it there."

The 49ers can point to mismanagement of the clock for their own Super Bowl heartbreak. The 49ers’ offense had the perfect play call at the perfect time against the Baltimore Ravens late in Super Bowl XLVII.

But with the play clock striking :00, coach Jim Harbaugh was forced to call a timeout from the sideline. A split-second later, the ball was snapped and it appeared the quarterback run would have easily ended up with Colin Kaepernick in the end zone.

Much like after the 49ers’ loss, the Falcons left plenty of room for second-guessing.

Two of Shanahan’s plays calls, which directly led to the collapse, will forever be scrutinized.

The first came with 8:31 remaining in regulation and the Falcons holding a 28-12 lead. On third and 1 from the Atlanta 36, Shanahan did not remain conservative with an expected run play. He swung for the fence.

Receiver Aldrick Robinson, whom the 49ers added this offseason as a free-agent pickup, was breaking free past the Patriots secondary for what could have been a touchdown. But just as Ryan was unloading, New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower hit him and forced the fumble. Running back Devonta Freeman whiffed on blitz pickup, which would have provided Ryan with enough time to target Robinson deep.

Ryan’s explanation does not appear applicable on this play, though. In watching the replay, the Falcons broke the huddle with more than 25 seconds remaining on the play clock and the snap occurred with :15 to spare.

The other questionable sequence came after the Falcons – leading by eight points -- got to the New England 22-yard line with less than five minutes to play. The Falcons lost 1 yard on a run play on first down.

On second down, Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Before that play, the Falcons broke the huddle with :19 on the play clock. The snap occurred with :04 remaining. The game clock was running, so the Falcons had reason to attempt to burn as much clock as possible.

In the fourth quarter, the Falcons never seemed rushed to get off a play. The closest they came to delay-of-game penalties were when they snapped the ball with :04 on the one play and :03 another time. The majority of their snaps occurred with :10 or more seconds to spare.

If the Falcons were guilty of anything when it came to the play clock, it was that the offense did not waste more time. After New England pulled to within 28-9 late in the third quarter, the Falcons ran only six offensive plays while the game clock was running.

On those six plays, the Falcons snapped the ball with :13, :09, :14, :20, :13 and :04 remaining on the play clock. If they’d snapped the ball with one second remaining each time, they could have shortened the game by 1 minute, 7 seconds. The Patriots scored the game-tying touchdown with :57 remaining in regulation.

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Until now, Kyle Shanahan’s hiring by the San Fracisco 49ers looked great because of his two-and-a-half predecessors – the last days of Jim Harbaugh, the misplaced concept of Jim Tomsula and the couldn’t-make-chicken-marsala-out-of-old-Kleenex problems surrounding Chip Kelly.

But now, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has told us all that Shanahan has a gift we in the Bay Area know all too well. Specifically, that Shanahan took too long to call plays to the Super Bowl the Falcons vomited up to the New England Patriots.

Now who does that remind you of, over and over again?

Yes, some things are evergreen, and too many options in this overly technological age seems to be one of them. Data in is helpful, but command going out is what bells the cow. Ryan said Shanahan was, well, almost Harbaugh-tastic in his timing.

“Kyle’s play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in,” Ryan told Bleacher Report. “As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you’re talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, ‘There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.’ You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

“With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there.”

And the reason this matters is because the Atlanta Shanahan had multiple good options on every play. In San Francsco, at least in the short term, he’ll be dealing with minimal options. That could speed up his choices, as in “What the hell, we don’t have Julio Jones.” But it could also mean more delays, as in, “Okay, him . . . no, maybe not . . . no, he just screwed up that play last series . . . oh, damn it, time out!”

In short, it’s growing pains season here, children. On the field, on the sidelines, and maybe even in Kyle Shanahan’s head.