Goldson: 'We just knew how to handle it this time'
Chris Culliver pulled down the game's only interception on Matt Ryan's third pass attempt of the second half. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
The 49ers defense rose up in the second half of the team's 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
And, to be sure, there were a lot of outstanding defensive plays as the 49ers shut out the high-powered Falcons over the final 30 minutes of action.
But the 49ers' best defensive play of the game occurred in the first quarter. In a game in which there were seven touchdowns scored, an outstanding effort from 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal.
What made Bowman's breakup of a third-and-4 pass intended for Jacquizz Rodgers so impressive is what he had to do just to get into position to cover the fleet running back. He flashed a little of everything on the play, including anticipation of what the Falcons were going to attempt to do.
Atlanta ran a well-designed pick play with wide receiver Julio Jones running a route into Bowman's path. That left Rodgers momentarily all alone on his route toward the right sideline. But Bowman got through Jones, closed ground on Rodgers with amazing quickness and reached out with his left hand to deflect the pass.
Although the Falcons would go on to kick the field goal and add another touchdown early in the second quarter, that play from Bowman kept the deficit manageable.
Here's a look at the other key moments for the 49ers on defense and special teams:
--Is defensive tackle Justin Smith OK? It took all of about four seconds to provide the answer. On the first play from scrimmage, the Falcons ran right at Smith. Center Todd McClure and left guard Justin Blalock double-teamed Smith, who reached out with his left arm -- yes, the arm with a partially torn left triceps tendon -- and brought down Michael Turner for a 3-yard gain.
--It was an up-and-down day for right cornerback Tarell Brown. He gave up some plays in coverage on expertly executed throws and catches and he was involved in a blown coverage, but also broke up a couple passes, including a deep pass in the fourth quarter.
Brown gave up 11 catches on 14 targets for 126 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He had very good coverage on Jones on the 20-yard TD pass to open the second quarter and tried to force Jones out of bounds. Somehow, Jones made the grab and got both feet inbounds. Brown did not give up a TD catch in the entire regular season or in the first playoff game, according to PFF.
--The breakdown occurred on Jones' first touchdown, the 46-yarder that gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead. Brown and Bowman went with tight end Tony Gonzalez at the sideline, allowing Jones to run past safety Dashon Goldson for an easy touchdown. It looked as if Brown should've continued on with Jones. It was the first time all season that the 49ers allowed a touchdown pass of 40 yards or more.
--Outside linebacker Aldon Smith did not have a sack, but he still made his presence felt with a lot of pressure -- two hits and five hurries -- on quarterback Matt Ryan. Is Smith's shoulder bothering him? I believe it is. There were a couple of times early in the game, including on a 16-yard pass to Roddy White, in which Smith did not get his arms up to attempt to knock down Ryan passes at the line of scrimmage. With his arm length, Smith can do a better job of disrupting the play on throws to his side even when it's just a three-step drop and he doesn't have time to get to the quarterback.
--Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks appeared to sustain a left hand injury on the second drive of the game, which forced him out of the lineup for a couple of plays. That's notable, considering some of the plays Brooks made in the fourth quarter. We'll explain later.
--Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga played 19 snaps after seeing action on just three plays against the Green Bay Packers a week earlier. Sopoaga did a very good job in his limited role. He and Justin Smith got penetration on a first-quarter run play in which Patrick Willis dropped Rodgers for a 2-yard loss. Sopoaga was not in for many run downs, but he got the 49ers' only sack of the game when he took down Ryan as he was stepping up in the pocket for no gain.
--Third cornerback Chris Culliver was targeted late in the second quarter. He gave up a 16-yard pass to Gonzalez and was called for illegal contact against Roddy White.
--The 49ers had the perfect defensive call against Gonzalez on a second-and-4 from the 10-yard line. Willis and Donte Whitner double-teamed Gonzalez, who used his body perfectly to snare Ryan's pinpoint pass for a 10-yard touchdown.
--Culliver got the 49ers' defense off to a great start in the second half. He read Ryan and White perfectly to step in front of the receiver for an interception to end Atlanta's first possession of the third quarter.
--The interception was spoiled when David Akers missed a 38-yard FG attempt of the left upright. Akers hit the ball well, just as he did in pregame warmups. But it was off the mark. All was not lost for Akers, however, as he provided touchbacks on each of his five kickoffs. And coach Jim Harbaugh announced on Monday that Akers would keep his job for the Super Bowl.
[RELATED: Akers to kick in Super Bowl]
--Cornerback Carlos Rogers did not see a whole lot of action go his way, as he was matched mostly on Harry Douglas in the slot. But he came through in a big way when his number was called. He had great coverage against White on a deep pass that he broke up at the goal line late in the third quarter.
--Aldon Smith got good initial push against Falcons left tackle Sam Baker, which enabled him to be in position to pounce on Ryan's fumbled snap out of the shotgun formation late in the third quarter. That play was huge because Atlanta, leading 24-21 at the time, had moved to the 49ers' 28.
--Carlos Rogers made one of the defensive plays of the game when he stopped Gonzalez for a 5-yard reception, forcing him out of bounds, on a third-and-6 at the Atlanta 10-yard line. Rogers got some help on that play when Aldon Smith briefly tied up Gonzalez at the line of scrimmage and did not allow him a free release. That forced the Falcons to punt after they took over at their own 1-yard line following Michael Crabtree's fumble.
--Punt returner Ted Ginn then gave the 49ers exception field position with a burst of speed along the right side for a 20-yard return. The 49ers took over at the Falcons' 38, and went on to score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
--Aldon Smith got pressure against Ryan, forcing him to hold the ball a little longer than he wanted, before throwing 35 yards down the field for Jones. That gave Brown enough time to come over and break up the deep pass on the Falcons' final drive.
--The 49ers blitzed Ryan on only five of 44 dropbacks, according to PFF, and one of them sprung Bowman for a big hit on the quarterback. Still, Ryan got the ball out of Jones for a 5-yard gain.
--Willis showed his remarkable closing speed to bring down Ryan for three yards on a scramble when it looked as if Ryan had an open field ahead of him late in the fourth quarter.
--On the controversial Douglas 22-yard reception that was upheld on review, Douglas was all alone after Rogers fell while trying to defend a double-move. Harbaugh's reaction was probably similar to the scene in living rooms throughout the Bay Area.
--Brooks had two big pass breakups -- both with his left hand -- in the fourth quarter. The first one came on a first-and-10 from the Falcons 1-yard line after Crabtree's fumble. The next one came on third-and-4 from the 49ers' 10 with 1:13 remaining. White appeared open along the right sideline, but it's possible Rogers, who was jumping the route, could've broken up the pass if the pass was a little off-target.
--Brooks also got pressure on Ryan and planted him into the ground, separating Ryan's left shoulder, with a hit just prior to his pass breakup on the final drive.
[RELATED: Brooks serves Ryan sprained shoulder]
--Just like on Gonzalez's touchdown at the end of the first half, it appeared as if defensive coordinator Vic Fangio knew exactly what the Falcons were going to do on fourth-and-4 from the 10.
The Falcons had three receivers to the right side. Afterward, Whitner said the 49ers knew that the ball would be going to whichever receiver on that side was the inside man. Both Bowman and Willis were in position, but White continued to move across the field, taking Willis out of the play. Bowman had contact with White, but managed to get his left hand in there to break it up. Even if White had made the catch, Goldson might have been in position to stop White short of the first down.
--Punter Andy Lee and gunner Tramaine Brock teamed up on special teams under extreme pressure. Lee got off a 43-yard punt within 3 yards of the left sideline with :13 remaining. Brock easily beat the block attempt of Robert McClain on that side to get into position to throw Douglas for a 1-yard loss to the Atlanta 41-yard line with :06 remaining. That left the Falcons time for just one more play.
--On the Falcons' final play, the 49ers sent a three-man rush and Aldon Smith got push into Ryan's face forcing him to throw early. Fourth cornerback Perrish Cox, who played only two snaps of defense, made the immediate hit on Jones as time expired.
Defensive play time
Includes plays nullified by penalties
67 (100%) -- FS Dashon Goldson, CB Tarell Brown, OLB Aldon Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, SS Donte Whitner
66 (99%) -- LB Patrick Willis, LB NaVorro Bowman
64 (96%) -- DT Justin Smith
63 (94%) -- OLB Ahmad Brooks
61 (91%) -- DT Ray McDonald
48 (72%) -- CB Chris Culliver
19 (28%) -- NT Isaac Sopoaga
7 (10%) -- DT Ricky Jean Francois
3 (4%) -- OLB Clark Haggans
2 (3%) -- CB Perrish Cox, DT Will Tukuafu
1 (1%) -- SS C.J. Spillman
16 (67%) -- Darcel McBath
15 (62%) -- Bruce Miller, Anthony Dixon, C.J. Spillman, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Michael Wilhoite
14 (69%) -- Tramaine Brock
11 (46%) -- Will Tukuafu
10 (42%) -- Delanie Walker, Daniel Kilgore, David Akers
8 (33%) -- Andy Lee, Brian Jennings
7 (29%) -- Dashon Goldson
5 (21%) -- Jonathan Goodwin, Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, LaMichael James, Leonard Davis, Garrett Celek, Perrish Cox
4 (17%) -- Tarell Brown, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois
3 (12%) -- NaVorro Bowman
2 (8%) -- Ted Ginn, Chris Culliver