Nolan's run defense faces big 49ers challenge

Nolan's run defense faces big 49ers challenge
January 16, 2013, 7:30 am
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In two games against the Falcons, Cam Newton rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns. (AP)

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The 49ers made some alterations to their run game last week because offensive coordinator Greg Roman figured his powerful offensive line could get vertical push against the Green Bay Packers to create running lanes.

That is why the 49ers featured more of the pistol formation, in which running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James line up directly behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is stationed 4 or 5 yards behind center.

The strategy definitely worked as Gore pounded the Packers with a straight-ahead attack, rolling up 119 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. And, of course, Kaepernick rushed for the most yards ever in an NFL game from a quarterback, as he piled up 183 yards on 14 attempts before two kneeldowns at the end of the game dropped his official total down 2 yards.

On paper, the NFC Championship Game appears to be another good matchup for the 49ers. The Atlanta Falcons have struggled defending the run, and they've struggled in recent games against multi-dimensional quarterbacks. The Falcons defense surrendered an average of 4.8 yards per rushing attempt in the regular season.

Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, formerly the 49ers head coach, must devise a plan to account for Kaepernick after getting past Seattle and their own young pass-run option at quarterback, Russell Wilson, in an NFC semifinal.

"He (Kaepernick) is more like Cam Newton probably than Wilson," Nolan said Tuesday during his meeting with Atlanta reporters. "He's got great open-field speed. He's probably as fast as any of the guys in the open field. He's elusive like the other guys but he's a bigger target. He's done an outstanding job.

"I think that Greg (Roman), the offensive coordinator, does an outstanding job of utilizing the players' strengths. It's the same thing he did in college, that's what he did. I actually think it's been two years and running when I'm sure they've been doing that stuff in practice with him so that when he got the opportunity to play he would be using those skills."

In two games that the Falcons faced Newton, the Carolina Panthers' second-year quarterback, he rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback creates all kinds of problems for a defense, Nolan admitted.

"You have to be very disciplined in what you do and it adds a player to the scheme that you're trying to stop," Nolan said. "Usually, when a quarterback takes the ball and gives it to somebody, that's the guy you don't account for. The quarterback doesn't count if he's just going to give the ball to someone. When all of a sudden he's the option as someone that can keep the ball, now that whole eight-man box goes from thinking 'We're one up,' to now you're in trouble because you have one less than they have.

"That style of offense that young guys are using now has a lot of positives about it from their standpoint, and Kaepernick does an outstanding job running it."

Here's a look at how the Falcons defense has fared against multi-threat quarterbacks this season:

Vs Seahawks, Win 30-28, Jan. 13
Russell Wilson: 7 rushes, 60 yards, 1 TD; 24 of 36 passing for 385 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

At Carolina, Loss 30-20, Dec. 9
Cam Newton: 9 rushes, 116 yards, 1 TD; 23 of 35 passing for 287 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT

At Philadelphia, Win 30-17, Oct. 28
Michael Vick: 7 rushes, 42 yards, 0 TD; 21 of 35 passing for 191 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

At Washington, Win 24-17, Oct. 7
Robert Griffin: 1 rushes, 7 yards, 0 TD; 10 of 15 passing for 91 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Griffin sustained a concussion on a hit from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and played only 36 snaps.

Vs. Carolina, Win 30-28, Sept. 30
Cam Newton: 9-86-1, 15 of 24 for 215 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT