Kaepernick: 'This is a great team win'
Colin Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and handed two more off to Frank Gore via the read/option. (USA TODAY IMAGE)
Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made a decision: He wanted to get the ball out of Colin Kaepernick's hands.
In doing so, the 49ers were forced to used more of a methodical approach to defeating the Falcons 28-24 on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
When the 49ers ran the read option, the Falcons' outside contain players positioned themselves up the field to take away that path for the 49ers' quarterback, who rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC semifinal win over the Green Bay Packers.
As a result, Kaepernick continued to hand the ball off to running back Frank Gore and backup LaMichael James against the Falcons. All three of the 49ers' rushing touchdowns came on the read-option play:
First quarter, trailing 17-0: Kaepernick froze left defensive end Kroy Biermann with the read option and he handed to James, who blasted around right end. What made this play work for the 49ers was the combination of James' speed and the blocking of tight end Vernon Davis and receivers Ted Ginn and Michael Crabtree. James picked up those blocks and outran linebacker Stephen Nicholas and safety William Moore into the end zone for a 15-yard scoring run.
Third quarter, trailing 24-14: This time, Kaepernick handed to Gore over the right side. Again, the 49ers got exceptional blocking to enable Gore to carry it into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. Center Jonathan Goodwin made the block on defensive tackle Peria Jerry. Right tackle Anthony Davis took care of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. And fullback Bruce Miller cleaned up linebacker Akeem Dent.
Fourth quarter, trailing 24-21: Again, Kaepernick made the proper read with defensive end John Abraham crashing up the field and taking himself out of the play if Kaepernick chose to hand off. Again, Anthony Davis and Miller made the key blocks -- Davis on Peters, and Miller on Nicholas -- for the go-ahead touchdown on a 9-yard run with 8:23 remaining.
Here is a look at the 49ers' key offensive plays from a victory that sends them to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens:
--You knew exactly what the 49ers were thinking on their first play when Kaepernick threw quickly to Michael Crabtree, who was covered by Asante Samuel, one of the worst-tackling cornerbacks in the league. Samuel, however, stopped Crabtree immediately for a 1-yard gain. So much for that.
--Tight end Vernon Davis saw single coverage against safety Thomas DeCoud on third-and-9, and DeCoud broke up the pass 15 yards down the field. That single-coverage strategy on Davis would eventually backfire.
--About the only poor decision Kaepernick made was throwing into triple coverage for Moss on the first play of the second drive. Kaepernick got lucky that the pass was incomplete, not intercepted.
--Kaepernick had good protection throughout the game. About the only time he did not have a clean pocked was on the 49ers' second possession. Defensive tackle Corey Peters beat left guard Mike Iupati for a 9-yard sack on third-and-4 play. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick was pressured only four times (one sack and three hurries), each of which was surrendered by Iupati.
--The game shifted after the 49ers took over down 17-0. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman slowed down the Atlanta onslaught with four consecutive run plays. Gore got things going with a 9-yard run on a read option. Goodwin, Anthony Davis, right guard Alex Boone and Miller each made blocks on the play.
--Three plays later, Kaepernick changed the play at the line of scrimmage. He shifted Miller from the right side to the left side, and Miller provided a block on a linebacker, while left tackle Joe Staley took care of defensive tackle Vince Walker for a 7-yard gain and another first down.
--As loud as it was, the 49ers did not seem to be affected by the crowd noise too much. Kaepernick was generally able to get the 49ers to the line of scrimmage in enough time to make his adjustments. But that was not the case on a third-and-2 play from the Atlanta 37. Either Kaepernick or coach Jim Harbaugh should've called a timeout to avoid the delay-of-game penalty.
--It didn't matter, as Kaepernick went back to the Davis-on-DeCoud matchup for a 27-yard gain, nearly half of which came after Davis broke a tackle along the left sideline.
--Another Davis catch against DeCoud, this one for 25 yards, was wiped out on Iupati's holding penalty against Walker in the middle of the second quarter. The 49ers would go on to score a touchdown on that drive. Davis again beat DeCoud for 19 yards two plays later.
--Kaepernick's only positive-yardage run play came on a scramble for 23 yards when the Falcons brought five pass-rushers. Iupati pushed his man, Peters, past Kaepernick, and Kaepernick outran linemen Biermann and Cliff Matthews, as well as linebacker Sean Weatherspoon at the left sideline.
--Vernon Davis beat Nicholas in coverage, as the 49ers again exploited a five-man rush for a 25-yard gain to the 4-yard line. Goodwin, Anthony Davis, Boone, Iupati provided Kaepernick with a clean pocket, and Gore and Staley held up strong on the outside, as Gore picked up the blitz.
--In addition to his best receiving game of the season, Davis also had his second-best blocking performance, according to PFF, which charts Davis' two best blocking grades as the 49ers' two playoff games.
--On the next play, Kaepernick's play-fake enabled Vernon Davis to work out into the pattern all alone for a 4-yard touchdown, cutting the Falcons' lead to 17-14.
--Wide receiver Randy Moss does not run like he did in his prime, but you could not tell by the cushion cornerback Dunta Robinson gave him in single coverage on the first play of the second half. Moss caught a Kaepernick pass for 21 yards on a comeback pattern.
--Boone had the block on Peters for an 11-yard Gore gain two plays later.
--Yes, Gore had 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, but let's not overlook his work in pass protection. Again, on a five-man rush, Gore picked up Moore on a blitz to allow Kaepernick time to hit Delanie Walker for a 20-yard gain.
--Kaepernick was 9 of 12 for 129 yards and a touchdown when he was blitzed for a 137.2 rating, according to PFF. He also had a 23-yard scramble against the blitz.
--The only planned run for Kaepernick resulted in a 2-yard loss. His quarterback sweep to the right side in the third quarter did not fool anyone on the Falcons' defense.
--Receiver Chad Hall, newly activated from the 49ers' practice squad, saw one snap of action. It came on a third-and-5 from the Atlanta 20-yard line in the third quarter, and William Moore got the tip of his fingers on the ball to break up Kaepernick's pass.
On Monday, I asked Harbaugh why Hall had leap-frogged rookie A.J. Jenkins on the depth chart. Harbaugh said, "I can't make that statement."
He explained, "We had a specific play that we felt Chad would be very good at. And that play got called in the game."
I asked whether there are specific plays for the backup wide receivers to mix and match.
"Well, that does occur," Harbaugh said. "And also they have to be ready to go in in case somebody goes down, with the whole game plan in mind. But A.J. was ahead of Chad on the depth chart had something happened to Michael or Randy."
Jenkins, the 49ers' first-round draft pick, did not see any action in the game.
--Two other 49ers offensive players got into the game for just one snap -- and they were very notable.
In the second quarter, No. 3 tight end Garrett Celek was inserted to block on a running play. He apparently stuck to his block to an annoying degree against Nicholas, who threw him to the ground and was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Two plays later the 49ers scored.
And running back Anthony Dixon, who was stopped last year in the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants on a key third-and-1 running play in the fourth quarter, got a similar opportunity in the fourth quarter. This time, Dixon plowed through the right side for 4 yards on the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown drive. Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and extra blocker Daniel Kilgore had exceptional blocks on the play.
--Crabtree was clearly the focus of the Falcons' pass defense, as it was difficult for him to create separation against a stead diet of double-teams and bracket coverage. He made a nice catch against tight coverage and ran hard to pick up half of his 33-yard gain early in the fourth quarter.
--But two plays later, Crabtree caught a pass near the goal line and was hit immediately and stopped by Robinson, who then stripped the ball before Crabtree broke the plane. Obviously, the turnover was a huge play at the time. But Crabtree and the 49ers' offense was bailed out when the 49ers' defense forced a punt and Ted Ginn returned that punt 20 yards to the Falcon's 38 with 11:46 remaining.
--Iupati and Staley had blocks as Gore picked up 7 yards on first down. Iupati appeared to sustain a right knee injury on the next play, but he remained in the game.
Staley had a tremendous block on Weatherspoon as James picked up 8 yards to the Atlanta 17. And Crabtree had an 8-yard catch against Samuel to set up Gore's winning touchdown run.
Offensive play time
Includes plays nullified by penalties
55 (100 percent) -- QB Colin Kaepernick, LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin RT Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis
54 (98%) -- TE Vernon Davis
48 (87%) -- WR Michael Crabtree
44 (80%) -- RB Frank Gore
36 (65%) -- FB Bruce Miller, WR Randy Moss
28 (51%) -- TE Delanie Walker
11 (20%) -- WR Ted Ginn
10 (18%) -- RB LaMichael James
3 (5%) -- OL Leonard Davis
2 (4%) -- OL Daniel Kilgore
1 (2%) -- TE Garrett Celek, RB Anthony Dixon, WR Chad Hall