They were down, but not out. The defense of the 49ers had a nightmare start as they were down 17-0 to start the game. Everything was clicking for the Falcons in the first quarter, but that didn't stop the team from not playing.
"We knew we made mistakes to fall behind early," said Donte Whitner. "We erased those mistakes in the second half and played solid football and tackled well. It shows the character of our team and the guys we have in the locker room. We had to keep on fighting and we needed to play solid fundamental football and we did."
Julio Jones in the first quarter alone had five receptions for 100 receiving yards which included a 46-yard touchdown. Dashon Goldson ended up biting on the play-action to put Jones wide open for the score.
The passing game eventually set up the running for the Falcons as Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner initially were able to run in chunks of four or five yards per carry. The 49ers could've panicked and become nervous the game but they didn't. Despite allowing points on four of the five Falcons' possessions, they had hope when they had one stop. They kept their composure in the second half.
"The thing that was most encouraging to me was that everybody stayed calm and poised," said defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. "The points started getting up there, but we stayed the course and made minor adjustments."
In the second half, the defense was able to get the breaks it needed when Chris Culliver intercepted the ball and Matt Ryan fumbled a snap for Aldon Smith to recover. Despite giving up yardage, they weren't giving up points throughout the third and fourth quarters. Even after the offense failed to capitalize on both turnovers, the defense was able to hang tough.
After Michael Crabtree fumbled the ball on the one-yard line, the defense forced a three-and-out when the Falcons took over. Ted Ginn was able to return a short punt to the Atlanta 38-yard line, giving the 49ers great field position to take the lead.
Frank Gore scored the go-ahead touchdown and the defense was able to get one last stand to cap off their incredible second half. Despite giving up plays to Harry Douglas and Julio Jones, the Falcons couldn't do a thing when they got to the red zone. Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman broke up back-to-back passes on third and fourth down to seal the 49ers victory.
How did they play so well in the second half? Vic Fangio made small adjustments to how the defense would line up. In the first half, the defense was back for coverage on receivers and the 49ers couldn't penetrate the line of scrimmage with three-man or four-man rushes. The occasional blitzes in the second half ended up working as pressure was coming to Matt Ryan. Aldon Smith failed to record a sack, but Ryan was forced to release the ball earlier than normal for a few critical times.
In the secondary, Fangio had the CBs in man coverage and were unable to cover Jones or Roddy White for the first half. The cornerbacks ended up playing more on the outside for the second half to counter Jones and White. With the pressure coming to Matt Ryan combined with improved coverage in the second half, it was a recipe for success. The players were able to trust each other in keeping their focus despite being dominated in the first half.
"It's all about believing who's on your team," said Aldon Smith. "If we didn't do that, we could have pushed the panic button. But we believe in each other and know what we're capable of. And we know our goals."
The 49ers defense was able to bend and not break and it punched their ticket to their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. A game is not over at halftime and the adjustments on defense proved it.