VIDEO: The San Francisco 49ers routed the Chicago Bears, 32-7. Colin Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first career start. Aldon Smith recorded 5.5 sacks, a new Monday night record. Now, the 9-1 Falcons have a 1 1/2 game lead over the 7-2-1 Forty Niners for the top seed in the NFC with six games to play.
FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ run defense has been plagued by the lack of the two ‘M’s’ of defensive football: Missed fits and missed tackles.
A missed fit occurs when a player fails to control the proper gap in the alignment and gives the opposing runner a lane to scurry through.
The Falcons have been trying to fix their run defense for weeks now.
In nearly every game, they have been gashed for big runs, which could be problematic this Sunday. They are set to face a resurgent Tampa Bay team and rookie rushing sensation Doug Martin, who already has run for 1,000 yards in 10 games.
“This running team that we’re getting ready to face is doing a great job,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “The rookie running back has had some really explosive games. It will be a challenge for us.”
In last weekend’s narrow 23-19 win over Arizona, the run defense had two major breakdowns.
Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling had runs of 40 and 52 yards, finishing with 127 yards on 22 carries. Take away the two long runs and Stephens-Howling had 35 yards on 20 carries.
It was the same story two weeks ago with the Saints. Except for a 56-yard touchdown run by Chris Ivory, the Falcons held the Saints run game under control.
Stephens-Howling was the third back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season, joining Denver’s Willis McGahee (113 yards) and Washington’s Alfred Morris (115 yards).
Fortifying the run defense remains an ongoing construction project for the coaching staff. In eight of the Falcons’ 10 games, the defense has given up at least one run of 29 yards or more.
Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles had a 46-yard gain. McGahee had a 31-yarder. San Diego’s Jackie Battle broke loose for a 52-yard gain. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had a 31-yard run. Morris had a 29-yard run. Oakland’s Mike Goodson had 40-yard gain.
“It’s not where we want it to be,” Smith said. “It’s got to be improved. But we are making progress. Some guys made some nice plays. The two explosive runs were definitely something that we don’t want to be dealing with.”
One of the big runs by the Cardinals came on a mis-alignment by the defense.
“When you don’t align properly, you don’t have a good opportunity to probably be successful,” Smith said. “It was something that was really simple and should not have been an issue. It’s something that we’ve got to be much better at.
“You can’t have 90-something yards of the 127 on two runs. We had opportunities to make them 10-yard runs or 7-yard runs and we missed tackles.”
Smith is hopeful that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon can return this week, which would help patch up the run defense. He has missed the last three games with a right ankle injury.
“Spoon is a run-and-hit linebacker,” Smith said. “Sean is one of our best football players, not only on the defensive side, but on our football team. We’ve missed him and we are looking forward to getting him back.”
Weatherspoon started working out with the training staff last week and could return to practice on Wednesday.
The Falcons run defense will tested by Martin, a first-round pick from Boise State who has 1,000 yards on 197 carries with seven touchdowns.
He has seven straight games with 100 yards from scrimmage, which tied a Tampa Bay team record. He has 1,320 yards combined rushing and receiving yards and is closing in on Warrick Dunn’s record mark of 1,440, which was set in 1997.
With Weatherspoon out, linebacker Akeem Dent has played most of his snaps while Mike Peterson has played in the base defense. He has not been the source of the run defense problems.
“Akeem has done a very nice job for us,” Smith said. “I think he’s gotten better and better each week. The snaps that he’s had to take because of Spoon being out are going to be invaluable for us down the road.”
When Weatherspoon returns, Dent will return to his old role of middle linebacker in the base defense.
“His role is going to change a little bit in terms of his snaps when Spoon comes back,” Smith said. “There is going to be an opportunity, I’m sure down the road, where he’s going to have to step in and play again. It may not be in this exact role, but something very similar to it.”