When the Vikings beat the Saints in glorious fashion in the playoffs, they gave some credit to the Falcons. Watching Atlanta shut down the New Orleans gave Minnesota some bright ideas they were able to implement en route to victory, and chances are Green Bay could learn the same kind of lessons from the Falcons beating the 49ers.
The Packers got stomped into oblivion by the 49ers last time out, so it’s not like they don’t have direct experience to draw on. Even so, there’s a few things the Falcons managed that Green Bay ought to try to replicate. All are easier said than done.
Make Jimmy Garoppolo beat you
The 49ers are quite simply a better team when Garoppolo is managing the game instead of taking it over. He lit up some suspect secondaries this year and burnished his reputation in the process, with 15 of his 27 touchdowns this year and 1,400 of his 3,978 yards coming in four games against Cincinnati, Arizona, and New Orleans. In his other 12 games combined, he threw for 12 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and about 2,500 yards. Last week against the Vikings, the 49ers leaned heavy on the run and their defense and Jimmy G only threw 19 passes, completing 11 of them, and that was enough to get the team over the hump.
The point isn’t that Garoppolo is a bad quarterback—he’s not—but that he has very real limitations that Kyle Shanahan needs to work around when facing quality defenses. One of those limitations is a susceptibility to turtling under pressure, but the one that the Falcons took advantage of was Garoppolo’s habit of using George Kittle as a security blanket underneath when coverage is tight.
One of the biggest highlights from the Falcons win was how organized they were in coverage. Refused to give many openings to Garoppolo downfield. Forced him to regularly throw it to Kittle underneath. Sheffield had an excellent game. Continues to have an impressive rookie year. pic.twitter.com/1ewcsLqHLp— Allen Strk (@Allen_Strk) December 18, 2019
Because Garoppolo is not subtle about where he’s going with the ball, prioritizing tight coverage early and keeping a close eye on Kittle gives you a good chance of stopping plays cold before they go anywhere.
Wreh-Wilson had so much success pouncing on Garoppolo's predictable throws/poor decisions. San Fran runs a bunch here with Kittle running underneath. Wreh-Wilson recognizes it immediately for another third down stop. pic.twitter.com/PGwsl3dLEB— Allen Strk (@Allen_Strk) December 18, 2019
Garoppolo also tends to default to Kittle as soon as his deep routes are not available without reading the coverage, which led to some of his ugliest interceptions this year.
Garoppolo looks at the out route, pumps to it, it's wide open and the right option. He never even looks before throwing to Kittle for the interception. pic.twitter.com/PK6FSAbNTa— Cian (@Cianaf) October 28, 2019
Jimmy Garoppolo gives it right back, as Luke Kuechly steps in front of George Kittle for the interception.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) October 27, 2019
The Packers’ game plan should be obvious, then. Giving San Francisco’s receivers any kind of cushion is going to let Garoppolo eat, especially because Shanahan has always excelled at creating opportunities. It’s easier said than done, but bringing pressure and prioritizing contact and tight coverage from the moment the ball is snapped will create situations where Garoppolo’s options are limited and he has to make a decision. In those situations, the decision he makes is often the wrong one, and one or two picks could turn the tide of this game.
Lean on Davante Adams
Caveat here: The 49ers did not have Richard Sherman when they played the Falcons, which made stopping Julio Jones that much more difficult. That didn’t fully explain why Robert Saleh was so consistently averse to throwing the kitchen sink at one of the best receivers in NFL history.
A Julio Jones red zone touchdown. Presses off Emmanuel Moseley on the comeback and uses his excellent footwork to get his long overdue touchdown. Surprised Robert Saleh didn't do more to prevent Julio from getting the ball here. pic.twitter.com/SvaM9UUouZ— Allen Strk (@Allen_Strk) December 18, 2019
There’s something to emulate here, too. Saleh has a ton of talent to work with and has done a brilliant job of generating pressure, but he’s often content to let his corners work one-on-one, and he doesn’t have a ton of great corners beyond Sherman to begin with. If an offense is smart and creative, as the Falcons were at times against San Francisco, they can spring their best option and get him a favorable matchup.
The Packers really don’t have a ton of compelling options at receiver, but neither did the Falcons, who were down Calvin Ridley and had Austin Hooper returning after a long layoff. They just repeatedly prioritized getting Julio the ball—13 catches on 20 targets—and it basically won Atlanta the game in the end. Until the 49ers show they can stop Davante Adams, the passing gameplan should revolve around getting him the ball.
Stymie the run
Again, easier said than done, but if you want Garoppolo to lose the game for the 49ers, you need to make him pass more than is ideal. You can’t get there without putting the brakes on the ground game.
The Falcons were sneakily brilliant against the 49ers in this regard, prioritizing playing their best run defenders up front and flocking to the ball carrier. There was nothing fancy about that effort, but aside from a 37 yard scamper from Tevin Coleman, they didn’t allow a single carry to go over 10 yards and came up with a bunch of quick stops. That forced the 49ers into 3rd and long situations, and again, those are not the situations San Francisco wants to find themselves in.
The Packers do not have one of the league’s best run defenses and Shanahan and Mike McDaniels’ reputations as run game geniuses are well-earned, but good fundamentals and a focus on stopping the run above all else will make a difference.
What else can the Packers take away from Atlanta’s win?