This is the beauty of the San Francisco defense: specialists all around. Willis is the coverage man, Justin Smith is among the game’s best at stopping the run and Aldon Smith is an elite pass rusher.
The 49ers’ only flaw seems to be their secondary, and that’s not much of a weakness. San Francisco’s cornerbacks are strong in coverage, but the only thing they lack is takeaways. Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver each has two interceptions, not among the league’s top 30, though safety Dashon Goldson has added three picks.
The lack of dazzling statistics hasn’t dampened the defensive backs’ enthusiasm for Sunday’s contest.
“It’s definitely going to be a fast-paced game. A lot of running, a lot of balls in the air,” said Brown, who has deflected 12 of the 90 passes that have been thrown in his direction. “But it’s the type of game that we’re looking forward to.”
The 49ers’ defensive star power won’t just put pressure on Ryan and the Falcons’ offense; it’ll push Atlanta’s defense to play better than it has, particularly against multidimensional quarterbacks. The Falcons faced the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III only for two full quarters before he left the contest in Week 5 with a concussion. But Atlanta struggled in two meetings against the Carolina Panthers, allowing more than 400 total yards in both games, and watched Wilson ignite a second-half comeback in last Sunday’s NFC semifinal that befuddled Falcons defenders. Only two long passes by Ryan and Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal prevented an embarrassing loss.
But San Francisco sees itself as the one facing the most blowback if Sunday goes sideways. Justin Smith is healthy enough, despite a large brace on his arm, and his defensive teammates stand to benefit from his presence. So the talent is there, no excuses, and the memories of last year’s conference title game, a 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants, haven’t faded.
“That window for chances like this are slim, and we have to take advantage of the opportunity,” Willis said. “. . . We’ve been in this situation, and really just bringing it home. It’s not good enough to make the playoffs; it’s not good enough to make it to the NFC championship.
“We want to win it all, because that’s what we would be remembered by the most.”