By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
Here are five keys for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:
>>Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick must continue to run effectively when he has no one open or on plays designed for him to carry the ball. Kaepernick averaged a staggering 13.1 yards per rush on the way to generating 181 yards on the ground in last weekend’s divisional-round victory against the Packers. He’s doing a masterful job of running the 49ers’ read-option offense from the pistol formation. And when things break down on a pass play, Kaepernick is an extremely dangerous scrambler. He becomes even more dangerous with the help of a strong running game. Besides the enormous challenge of stopping/containing Frank Gore (who ran for 119 yards in last weekend’s divisional-round game against Seattle), the Falcons must try and avoid being overpowered by San Francisco’s big, physical offensive line.
>>The Falcons need to get maximum production from their talented pass-catching trio of tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. The Falcons will do what they usually do with their passing game: look to draw as much man-to-man coverage as they can. And that should help allow Matt Ryan, who has become increasingly comfortable running a no-huddle offense, to connect with his receivers for big plays, especially with the 49ers lacking anyone in their secondary with strong lock-down coverage skills.
>>The 49ers have to get big-play production from wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Crabtree has firmly established himself as Kaepernick’s go-to option. Crabtree has become particularly effective on deeper routes, and does a superb job of picking up big yards after the catch. With his tremendous speed and athleticism, Davis is a constant big-play threat. The Falcons’ defense showed a clear vulnerability in the middle of their defense against Seattle tight end Zach Miller last weekend.
>>The Falcons have to run the ball every bit as effectively as they did against the Seahawks last weekend. Atlanta generated 167 yards in the divisional-round playoff game. Although Michael Turner might not offer the explosiveness he once did, he is still capable of doing some damage. The Falcons get dynamic running and receiving from Jacquizz Rodgers, who will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact against a defense that has not performed particularly well against the run of late and is susceptible to biting hard on play-action.
>>The Niners’ defensive line needs to find a way to generate steady pressure on Ryan. The Seahawks were unable to sack Ryan last weekend, but the 49ers should be able to apply greater heat from a line anchored by tackle Justin Smith, who has been able to still see extensive action despite dealing with partially torn triceps muscles. His disruption and penetration do plenty to help ends Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to tear after the quarterback. It should be noted that, although the Niners managed to often make Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers uncomfortable in the pocket, they only sacked him once.
>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.
>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/browns_daily, Twitter.com/viccarucci, e-mail: Daily@ClevelandBrowns.com, or by calling 855-363-2459.
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