Vernon Davis could be in line for a big day Sunday. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers' offense present a laundry list of issues for the Atlanta defense, not the least of which being Kaepernick's dual-threat abilities -- Falcons' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan called him "a game-wrecker" this week.
But a potentially big problem arose for the Falcons in their win over Seattle: an inability to cover tight end Zach Miller.
Miller finished last Sunday's game with eight catches for 142 yards (a 17.8 per-catch average). He also caught a wide-open 3-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter, as part of Seattle's rally from 20 points down.
The Seahawks and 49ers do not run the exact same offenses, but the basics are similar. Like Seattle, San Francisco utilizes the pistol, some zone-read looks and relies on Kaepernick's run/pass combo abilities to create plays. Atlanta struggled with Russell Wilson's comparable skill set last week, especially during the second half.
And because of the extra attention the Falcons paid to Wilson, Miller continued to find cavernous gaps in the Atlanta defense.
San Francisco's Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops while watching that -- Davis made just 41 catches during the regular season (his lowest total since 2008), but he remains one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.
Our first conference finals "Break It Down" looks back at how Miller hurt the Falcons, and how the 49ers and Davis might be able to take advantage of Atlanta, too.
Were it only so simple for Atlanta to point to Seattle's pistol, zone-read looks and say, "OK, let's adjust our tight end coverage there" ...
But the truth is that Miller burned the Falcons' secondary out of a variety of formations. On this first play we'll look at, for example, the Seahawks lined up Wilson under center, with two tight ends (Miller and Anthony McCoy) plus WR Sidney Rice to his left.
The Falcons countered with a look they showed a lot Sunday. It was a 4-3 in personnel that looked a lot like a 5-2 set -- linebacker Stephen Nicholas moved up tight to the right side of Atlanta's line, while safety Thomas DeCoud (circled) dropped down to give the Falcons eight players within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Miller and Rice ran routes (Miller being the inside one), while McCoy shot across the line to pick up John Abraham. The use of McCoy there is similar to how the Vikings distributed players out of a trips (three-receiver) formation to run the zone-read vs. Green Bay. By doing it here, Seattle had Wilson protected after he faked a handoff to Marshawn Lynch and rolled to his right.
The difficulty for Atlanta, even though this play did not come out of the pistol or utilize the zone-read, is that the Falcons had to respect both the Lynch run and a potential Wilson rollout.
As a result, Miller was able to slip into the gap between the linebackers and deep safety William Moore. Miller then ran his route to the sideline, where Rice had cleared out the remaining Atlanta defender.
Over and over again, Miller shot into vacancies created either by Atlanta's commitment to stopping the run or by a Falcons blitz. Here, the Seahawks again showed a run-heavy formation -- three tight ends overloaded to the right side, with Lynch in a single-back set behind Wilson. Just as on our first example, Atlanta had five on the line and three in the traditional linebacker spots.
Even with Lynch breaking out of the backfield immediately, Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon froze, wary of Wilson's ability to escape the pocket.
As they did that, Miller again cleared that linebacker level and shot free into the secondary. Wilson hit him for a 34-yard gain.
Miller had multiple catches with Wilson in the shotgun with an empty backfield, too. There, the only ground threat was Wilson himself, yet Miller on at least three occasions found himself wide open immediately at the snap.
Even though most of Miller's action came with Seattle in sets other than the pistol, the same deceptions were there the majority of the time. So long as the play-fakes, misdirection and potential of a QB run are prevalent in the defense's mind, offenses can take advantage.
One more example, off a play-fake to Lynch. Wilson held the linebackers, a wide receiver cleared one side of the field and Miller sprinted to the opening.
With the threat of a Kaepernick run in their back pockets, the 49ers also like to move Davis around.
The 49ers do use the pistol a great deal. Green Bay tried to counter it early in the NFC divisional round with a look similar to what Atlanta used vs. Seattle -- five on the line, two linebackers five yards deep and a safety dropped down. The Packers did this out of their 3-4 personnel with Clay Matthews to Kaepernick's blindside and another defender on the opposite side of the line.
But on pass plays, be it out of the pistol (as seen here) or another formation, that left Davis one-on-one.
That's Tramon Williams with the red X there. He shifted out to cover a motioning Bruce Miller out of the backfield, leaving LB A.J. Hawk responsible for Davis on a pass.
Hawk actually did a decent job recognizing the play-fake Kaepernick made to Frank Gore, allowing him to stay with Davis early as Kaepernick completed a pass to Michael Crabtree instead. However, Davis had Hawk beaten deep in that hole between the linebacker and deep safety -- exactly where Miller did most of his work last week vs. Atlanta.
The 49ers will also slide Davis out to a flanker spot, if the matchups arise. With Green Bay blitzing Kaepernick, on the play pictured below, Davis drew a holding call on Williams.
Davis' one catch against the Packers was a 44-yard, on a deep ball from Kaepernick. Again, the 49ers lined up in a pretty traditional single-back set, while the Packers countered with that eight-up look.
This left the Packers with a two-pronged problem when Kaepernick dropped to throw:
1. Davis had a juicy matchup with a linebacker again, which he exploited to make a play downfield.
2. Kaepernick had a clear running lane, if he had chosen to take it, because the Packers' front five did not get home with pressure and the back six had to drop quickly in coverage.
And lest you think we've forgotten about the zone-read: It will be there for the 49ers, though they most often use it as a run, as opposed to a play-action decoy. But the play-action might be there Sunday, if the 49ers opt to use it.
This is a shot from Kaepernick's 56-yard TD run against the Packers. Miller came across to block the weak side -- as McCoy did for Seattle above -- while Davis stayed home to block. Had the 49ers adjusted their line assignments and used play-action here, though, Davis easily could have darted behind the linebackers for a substantial gain.
The long and short of it is this: San Francisco's offense, as Seattle's did, will create mismatches against the Atlanta defense. The Seahawks were able to turn those mismatches into a big day for Miller.
Can the Falcons learn from that to slow down Davis, knowing that they'll see a lot of similar looks from San Francisco? To do so will require better play recognition from the linebackers -- and too much attention on Davis could leave the Falcons vulnerable elsewhere.