FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When they were teammates at the University of Missouri, Aldon Smith slept on William Moore’s couch for a few months during Smith’s freshman year before moving into his dorm room.
This Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, Moore, a Falcons safety, is hoping that the 49ers linebacker doesn’t set up in the kitchen of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
Smith, who had 19.5 sacks this season, has set the NFL record for the most sacks in the first two seasons of a player’s career with 33.5.
“He could sleep on my couch this weekend,” quipped Moore, who said the two remain close. “Make sure he don’t make it to the game.”
That would be one way for the Falcons to defend Smith, perhaps a lot easier than having to block him. The 49ers play a 3-4 front, which, until this season, had given the Falcons headaches.
In January 2011, the Falcons infamously lost to Green Bay 48-21 and defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4. They lost again to the Packers 25-14 during the 2011 regular season.
As it happens, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a Capers disciple. From 1995 to 1998, he coordinated the Carolina Panthers defense when Capers, one of the best to run that scheme, served as the Panthers head coach.
“They play as hard and as physical as anybody in the league,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of the 49ers’ defense.
The strength of the 49ers defense is their linebackers, as three of their four – Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the latter two both being inside linebackers – earned All-Pro status.
Another key player for the 49ers is right defensive end Justin Smith, who had three sacks but is playing through a partially torn triceps muscle where it attaches to the left elbow.
In passing situations, the 49ers line up Aldon Smith on the left side, where Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo will match up with him.
“He’s a very physical rusher,” Clabo said. “And I think that that’s going to be the key. They’re a physical defense. Not a lot of guys trying to run around anybody out there. A lot of bull rush. It’s almost like their goal is to physically dominate the person in front of them as much as they possibly can and then like look around and see if the quarterback is standing around anywhere near.
“That’s what it looks like on tape. They’re a physical group. There’s no doubt about it.”
In addition to Moore, another Falcons defender was a college teammate of Smith’s at Missouri – linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
“He’s really athletic,” Weatherspoon said of Aldon Smith. “He’s a basketball player type-of-guy and he has every move: He can pass rush you, he can bull rush you, he can go around you, he can shake you, go inside, spin move. He has it all.”
At times, Aldon Smith also drops back into pass coverage. The Falcons faced a somewhat similar outside linebacker in Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (11.5 sacks this season) in a 19-13 victory over the Cowboys. Ware posted 1.5 sacks but the Falcons mostly did a good job of containing him, as one sack came on a blown assignment. Ware came in completely unblocked on that play, delivering a violent hit on Ryan.
While the 3-4 formerly gave the Falcons trouble – losses to Dallas and New England in ’09 and Pittsburgh in ’10 are notable others – they have won all five meetings this season against 3-4 teams. (Denver is a sixth that uses a lot of 3-4 looks, Clabo said.)
The Falcons credit their success against it both to familiarity but also to practicing against first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit, which uses more 3-4 looks.
“Our defense has a lot of multiplicity to it and working in the offseason through training camp, (offseason team activities), minicamps, there is a tinge of some 3-4 principles,” head coach Mike Smith said, “so we’ve got a pretty good idea of what type of runs we feel are going to be successful against 3-4 teams.”
While the Falcons are more familiar with the defense, the 49ers’ personnel makes it a challenge unlike any other the Falcons have faced.
“This is no ordinary defense,” left guard Justin Blalock said. “They fill the scheme with awesome players. Not to say anyone else is inferior, but these guys are really awesome. Collectively, they play really disciplined football. You rarely find them out of position and that’s what makes them so good.”
Moore said he is proud of the 49ers’ two Missouri products, Aldon and Justin Smith. But he hopes they don’t wreck the game against his team.
“I’m proud of those guys as former Mizzou guys going out there, ballin’,” he said, “but hopefully they don’t show up this week.”