In reaching the NFC Championship Game two years running, the 49ers have had to topple two of the best quarterbacks in recent years.
But if San Francisco is to be Super Bowl-bound for the first time in 18 years, they’ll have to down one more today.
“He fits right in with that group, the elite ones,” 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said of Atlanta’s fifth-year quarterback, Matt Ryan. “And he’s playing awesome football right now.”
His teammates agree. Almost.
“I see some similarities, as far as pocket presence, with Aaron Rodgers — minus the legs, the scrambles,” safety Dashon Goldson said. “But he’s very poised back there. He gets the ball out and he knows where he’s going with it.”
After reeling off his best statistical passing season, in which he threw for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, the 27-year-old Falcons quarterback is coming off a riveting 30-28 divisional playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks.
But though the win — and near-defeat — proved that Ryan is a perennial playoff loser no more, he wasn’t perfect. Along with his three touchdown passes, Ryan was picked off twice, once while the pocket was collapsing.
“There’s no doubt, we most certainly have to get pressure on Matt Ryan,” 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis said. He emphasized, however, that the task will largely fall on the shoulder pads of the defensive line.
“When coach calls for a five-man pressure then we will,” Willis said, “but for the most part, we really are going to count on those guys to get after him and we’re going to be in coverage.
“Like I said, they have some good skill guys that we have to account for.”
Atlanta sports a fine receiving corps featuring Roddy White and Julio Jones, who tallied 1,351 and 1,198 receiving yards this season, respectively. But rendering the Falcons flightless won’t be easy.
In addition to the dangerous wideout tandem, 16-year veteran Tony Gonzalez has been a favored target of Ryan this season. The 36-year-old former Cal star nabbed a team-high 93 receptions for 930 yards during the regular season while tallying eight touchdowns.
“[Ryan] looks for him a lot,” Willis said. “Gonzalez is a guy who’s played this game for a long time, who’s been consistently good, one of the best tight ends to ever play. He’s still playing at a high level and he’s making big plays for them.”
But the 49ers’ defense isn’t just focusing on Atlanta’s avian attack plan.
“They have two really good running backs and they run the ball exceptionally hard,” Smith said. “We are going to have to make sure we stop them, so we can try to make them a little bit more one-dimensional.”