Here's a key matchup from the NFC championship game:
Falcons OLT Sam Baker vs. the 49ers’ Smiths
Any left tackle who faces the 49ers inevitably locks horns with the powerful Justin Smith or duels with the flashing wonder that is Aldon Smith. Both are a chore. Neither one takes a play off.
Baker, who lost his job last season and has fought back issues, has had a revival in 2012. He faces a daunting task this week with Smith and Smith, who both will line up across from Baker on the defense's right side. Baker handled Seahawks pass-rushing DE Bruce Irvin well on Sunday, helping hold him to one tackle despite playing 46 snaps.
QB Matt Ryan had a clean pocket in the game. He wasn’t sacked and might only have been hit a single time all game on 35 dropbacks, including a number of seven-step drops and deep shots. Ryan’s two interceptions were unforced errors, not borne from pressure.
Baker not only pass-protected well (mostly without help from backs or tight ends) but also helped spring some nice running plays, including a 15-yard Michael Turner jaunt on the second play of the game, a 33-yard Turner run in the second quarter in which Baker drove and turned Irvin inside and a Turner nine-yarder in the fourth quarter three plays before Ryan was picked.
But Baker is not a pile-driver in the run game, and he’s going to have to find ways to keep Smith from exerting his will with brute force. Smith’s triceps injury appeared to take a little of his edge away against Green Bay, his first game back since getting hurt. But he will give four quarters of effort and is a bear to block.
But so is Smith. Despite the fact that he’s on a four-game sack-less streak right now, the longest of his brief career (he had not gone longer than two games without one previously), he still looks quick and lethal — he just hasn’t shown that finishing element in recent games and teams are doing their best not to let Smith beat them.
The Falcons tend to run right a lot and if they move the pocket, it’s typically in that direction to aid the righthanded Ryan to throw on the run. But Smith is fast enough to catch Ryan from behind if Baker doesn’t at least stymie his initial move. Worse yet, the Smiths also will twist and stunt, which often gives O-lines major trouble. Baker and OLG Justin Blalock must communicate well and keep them at bay as best they can.