By Jerrell Richardson
The fact that NaVorro Bowman has been used more and more in recent weeks in passing situations says more about Bowman than Patrick Willis. Since joining the team, Willis has been the team’s centerpiece, and has literally never stepped off the field. Now that he has a capable partner in crime, Willis can take a few plays off, and it can be argued that Bowman is even the better of the two against the pass. Both will be asked to shut down the best tight end the NFL has ever seen on Sunday, but luckily for the 49ers, Gonzalez is not the same player he was in his prime, while the young and athletic San Francisco linebackers are just entering theirs. Father time is still undefeated, and the bottom line is that the younger 49ers should be able to contain Gonzalez.
There is a new age of tight ends taking over the league, led by Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and the 49ers’ own Vernon Davis. These players are among the fastest on their respective teams and can stretch the field with their speed and big play ability. This does not apply for the old school Gonzalez,. He is not close to beating Falcons receiver Julio Jones in a foot race, and doesn’t pose a big play threat, but Gonzalez is a consistent and steady target, and he lead the team with 93 receptions in the regular season. The 49ers can live with Gonzalez having a modest day, as there is no way to completely shut him down. Where they must buckle down is in the red zone and on third down, two areas that will be crucial to the team that wins. If Gonzalez is heard from in either area, it can be a long day for the San Francisco defense.
Can Only Hope to Contain Him
There is no question that San Francisco has the talent to quiet Gonzalez for one game. They have in Bowman and Willis, the best linebacker combination in the league, and if anyone can say they like their match up against Tony Gonzalez, it’s the 49ers. However, even San Francisco is at a disadvantage; it’s just not as glaring as the other 31 NFL teams. The issue is that there is no defense for offensive perfection, and there are going to be plays made against you when going against a well oiled machine like the Atlanta offense. The key is to make Ryan force the ball into small windows and rely on the rest of the defense to help swarm to the ball. It works slightly in the defense’s favor as they know where the ball is going eventually, and if can make any pre-snap reads, can be in position to make a big play that could mean the difference in this game.
Experience Vs. Youth
It will be interesting to see who wins this battle with two (at a time) elite players locked up, with the added element of the up and coming 49er linebackers against the the wily veteran. The greatest tight end in the history of the NFL has announced that he plans to retire at the end of the season, and will be playing this game like it’s his last–as it might be. It will fall on Bowman and Willis to stop him from having a career day, but both have the ability to do so and will use this week to learn everything they can about the living legend to help them on the field. The key will not be limiting his catches, but instead limiting where he makes his catches, ensuring that he is blanketed in the red zone and on 3rd down, which will allow the defense to get off the field. All other receptions are par for the course as planning to completely stop Gonzalez is not a feasible option.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.