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Once again, neither Missouri NFL team made the playoffs. Worse, MU failed to make a bowl game for the first time since 2004. But that doesn’t mean mid-Mo. football fans have nothing to cheer for. Sunday afternoon’s NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons might not seem to carry much midwest relevance, but there’s a distinct Columbia feel to these teams from the City by the Bay and the Dirty South. Here are five things for the otherwise disinterested MU fan to keep an eye on:
Colin Kaepernick vs. William Moore and Sean Weatherspoon
In case you missed it, Colin Kaepernick’s kind of a big deal now. After a record-setting performance last weekend vs. Green Bay, Kaepernick has become the most recent Next Big Thing to Revolutionize the Quarterback Position (following in the footsteps of Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Vince Young, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and countless other quarterbacks gifted with more than a strong arm). The 49ers quarterback ripped apart the Packers defense thanks in large part to a simple read-option play from the pistol formation. The play gives the quarterback the option to either hand the ball off or keep it himself, a decision he makes based on what the defense does after the snap.
Kaepernick honed his read-option skills in his four years running the pistol offense at Nevada, but it isn’t one with much history in the NFL. The 49ers liberally borrowed from his collegiate playbook when the team decided it was time to end the Alex Smith era, and opposing teams have struggled to adjust.
Not that this is really anything MU fans haven’t seen. Brad Smith abused teams routinely with the same read-option (albeit out of the shotgun, not pistol, formation), so mid-Mo. viewers should be familiar with the general principle. More important this weekend, though, is how well Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore recall their college days.
MU faced Kaepernick’s Nevada team in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In those two victories, Weatherspoon tallied 21 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. In 2008, Moore contributed four solo stops in MU’s 52-point win. Spoon and Willy Mo will need to turn in similar performances to keep Kaepernick in check.
Colin Kaepernick vs. William Moore and Sean Weatherspoon, part 2
As important as it is to stop the 49ers’ run game, the Falcons can’t forget that Kaepernick is, after all, a quarterback. He does throw the ball occasionally, too. And when he does, he does it well. Kaep is the NFL’s most accurate passer, and he and two-time Biletnikoff Award-winner Michael Crabtree have developed a chemistry that should have Falcon fans concerned. In Crabtree’s first three and a half NFL seasons, he had just four 100-yard games. In the eight games since Kaepernick took over, Crabtree’s had four more. He’s become the embodiment of third-down conversions.
The Falcons pass defense, meanwhile, has been less than stellar. They’ve allowed 242 passing yards per game, 23rd in the NFL, so chances are the 49ers will pile up plenty of passing yards. But what Weatherspoon, Moore and their defensive running mates have given up in quantity, they make up in quality. True, they give up a lot of yards. But they’re fifth in the NFL in defensive quarterback rating allowed. They’re also fifth in scoring defense. And, perhaps most importantly, fourth in the NFL in takeaways. Atlanta gives up lots of yards. They also make lots of big plays. Weatherspoon and Moore are both a big part of that.
Kaepernick’s started only eight NFL games. For most of those eight games, he’s made defenses look foolish. But an inexperienced quarterback against a defense that can swing a game in a single play is worth keeping an eye on.
Chase Coffman vs. Coaches Who Won’t Play Him Ever
Chase Coffman. Remember Chase Coffman? Yeah, that guy who hurdled defenders and had duct tape hands, the sideline ballerina who could not be stopped? He’s been held in check for the entirety of his NFL career, and not by opposing defenses. Instead, it’s been his own coaches keeping him from making plays, and they’ve done it by keeping him off the field.
Certainly they had their reasons. He’s not known as a great blocker. He isn’t an all-world athlete in the Vernon Davis mold. But his hands … those are still pretty good. And he showed that last week against Seattle with a Sportscenter-worthy catch near the goal line in the first quarter to set up Atlanta’s first touchdown.
Will the Atlanta coaching staff give him a chance against San Francisco? Maybe. If the prior few years are any indication, probably not. But an MU fan can dream, right?
Justin Smith vs. Justin Smith’s left triceps
It seems like ages ago when Justin Smith last donned the black and gold — he was pre-Pinkel, even — but he’s no less a Tiger. After wasting away in the NFL graveyard that was Cincinnati, Smith signed with San Francisco a few years ago, and he’s quickly revamped his game. Smith, who plays the typically glamor-free position of 3-4 defensive end, has forced fans and analysts to take notice. That happens when you make a habit of tackling two guys at once (a practice that goes back to his college days and continues still). In 2011, Pro Football Focus named him the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and he was named to the all-pro team at both defensive end AND defensive tackle (no one else has ever been honored at two positions in one year, but that’s what happens when you cause twice the havoc of anyone else). He’s come back down to earth a little this year, in part due to an injured triceps that forced him to miss the final few games of the regular season (the first he’s ever missed to an injury).
That injury is the key. At his best, Smith is unblockable. He draws at least two guys on any given play, and even when he doesn’t make a tackle or a sack, he’s a disruptive force who makes things easier for everyone else. Atlanta’s potent offense hopes he’s not healthy. MU fans should hope for otherwise. Justin Smith at full go is a beautiful thing to behold.
Aldon Smith vs. Aldon Smith and Atlanta’s offensive line
Hey! Did you know Justin Smith AND Aldon Smith both played at Missouri? And they’re both named Smith! It’s like they’re brothers, even though they’re not!
You’ll probably hear some version of that on Sunday. It’s understandable that a simplistic “Smith brothers” monicker would get slapped on the two Tigers on the 49er defense, but that doesn’t make the nickname any less unfortunate. And more than being annoying, it encourages analysts to assess the two as a unit on the field, as well. Aldon Smith has been the most productive pass rusher in NFL history over his first two season. No one else has ever been as prolific as fast as he has been. But it seems impossible to talk about Aldon without crediting Justin for his success.
The 49ers occasionally utilize a simple stunt with the two. Justin lines up inside but rushes outside, and Aldon swings around behind him in the gap Justin creates. On the season, it’s led to a handful of sacks for Aldon and consistent pressure on the quarterback. But Aldon’s more than a product of Justin’s stunts. He’s an explosive pass rusher who on multiple occasions has pancaked tackles on his way to demolishing quarterbacks. He’s been a threat from both the left and right side, and he’s even made plays lining up inside. He kills single blockers, and he frequently splits double teams with ease.
But sometimes he doesn’t, too. As good as Aldon can be, he has a tendency to disappear. Some point to Justin’s injury, but it isn’t just that. Both Smiths are responsible for Aldon’s occasional drop in production (an odd phrase to describe a guy consistently threatening records, but still appropriate). When he’s on, he’s one of the most dangerous defensive players in the NFL; when he’s off, he’s forgettable. Atlanta’s offensive line will have little trouble blocking the lesser version of Aldon. If the good Aldon shows up, though, things might get ugly quick.
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