COMMENTARY | By virtue of the Arizona Cardinals upset win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers now have a chance to nab the NFC West championship. However unforeseen this scenario might have been four weeks ago, it is now a slight possibility as the 49ers prepare for their final regular season game at Candlestick Park. Interestingly enough, Arizona's win also means that the 49ers must take care of business tonight against the lowly Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football or face the real possibility of losing out on the playoffs altogether next week when they take on a hot Cardinals team in the desert.
Oh, the fun of late-season NFL. Here are a few key matchups to watch out for tonight.
Aldon Smith vs Lamar Holmes
This just seems unfair for the young left tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranks second-to-last among all tackles in pass protection while Smith ranks No. 5 overall among 3-4 outside linebackers in the all-important pass-rush category. Tasked with protecting Matt Ryan's blindside, Holmes is going to need to see help from left guard Justin Blalock, among others. The issue here is that will open up lanes for Justin Smith to get to the quarterback. It really is a no-win proposition for the Falcons.
The matchup tonight reminds me a great deal of when the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Candlestick during the 2011 season with a banged up offensive line. Left tackle Max Starks was ordered to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blindside in that one. He didn't do a great job, as Smith tallied 2.5 sacks in the 49ers 20-3 victory. If Holmes is unable to stop or at least slow down Smith, the Falcons passing game is going to be in trouble. It's also important to note that Ryan is one fumble away from tying a career high of six that he set as a rookie back in 2008.
Joe Staley vs Osi Umenyiora
The Falcons pass rush has been downright atrocious in 2013. Outside of a five-sack performance against the Matt Flynn-led Green Bay Packers back in Week 14, Atlanta has accumulated 23 sacks in its other 13 outings. Pro Football Focus also grades the Falcons out as the worst pass-rushing unit in the entire league.
One guy has been somewhat decent at getting to the quarterback. First-year Falcon Osi Omenyiora has put up 6.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hurries this season. He will now be tasked with going up against one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the NFL. Joe Staley has allowed just four sacks and one quarterback hit on the season. If the Falcons cannot get pressure on Colin Kaepernick from that side of the field, he will eat apart their defense both through the air and on the ground.
Carlos Rogers vs Roddy White
While Rogers will line up in the slot in nickel situations, he will most likely be shadowing White for a vast majority of the game. Much like every Falcons player this season, White has struggled. Most of these struggles have had to do with numerous injuries throughout the campaign, which have impacted White's ability to be a consistent performer.
It now appears that the former Pro Bowl performer is nearing 100 percent and should be able to provide Ryan with that consistent receiving threat he's been missing with White banged up and Julio Jones lost for the season. After putting up 20 total receptions in his first eight games, White has tallied 23 catches for over 250 yards in his last three outings. He also put up seven catches for 100 yards against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game this past January.
For his part, Rogers hasn't exactly been the 49ers best defensive back this season. He's their only regular player in the secondary that possesses a negative coverage grade from Pro Football Focus and has allowed a team-high 60 percent completion rate and over 500 passing yards on the year. If Atlanta can take advantage of this perceived mismatch, it could surprise people on offense. With that being said, you can expect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Co. to mix up schemes and looks in this one. This means that Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown should also get looks against White.
Overall, the matchups severely favor the home team in this one. There is a reason why Atlanta sits in the basement at 4-10 and has yet to beat a team that currently possesses a winning record. It's also going to have a hard time matching up against a 49ers offense that might finally be hitting their stride. If San Francisco can win these three key matchups, it will likely win this one going away and earn a postseason berth with a shot at the division title in Week 17. If not, the Falcons could end up playing spoiler.
Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Atlanta Falcons
- San Francisco 49ers
- Justin Smith
- Pro Football Focus
- Aldon Smith
- Arizona Cardinals
- Monday Night Football