FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Michael Turner’s trademark high-pitched laugh filled the Falcons’ locker room.
Asked about San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Turner grinned Thursday and said “I’m glad I’m not on defense.”
Turner, the big running back, and the Falcons’ offense want to hold the ball and limit Kaepernick’s time on the field in Sunday’s NFC championship game.
The Falcons have seen enough in Kaepernick’s eight starts to respect the versatile quarterback with the long stride and strong right arm.
Kaepernick comes to Atlanta after running for 181 yards – an NFL record for a quarterback – with two touchdowns in last week’s win over Green Bay. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards with two touchdowns. He became only the third quarterback, after Otto Graham and Jay Cutler, to run and throw for at least two touchdowns in a postseason game.
It’s little wonder the Falcons are impressed, even after facing such other dual-threat quarterbacks as Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson this season.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon says the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick is unique.
“I think he’s just a different guy altogether,” Weatherspoon said. “He’s a taller guy, obviously. He broke the record last week, so that makes him special and different. I think he has a lot more speed. Russell is more of a quick guy. Colin is a faster guy.”
Wilson and Griffin are scramblers. Kaepernick looks more like a 200-meter sprinter with his unusually long stride.
“That’s the thing,” Weatherspoon said. “You look at him and you think long striders are not fast, but then you look and he’s covering a lot of ground and passing a lot of people. You can tell he can run. Speed won’t be a surprise to us. We’ve watched the tape. We’ll be ready to go.”
The 49ers don’t have to be told they’ll bring an unusually gifted quarterback to the Georgia Dome. In only half of a season, Kaepernick has given the San Francisco offense a facelift.
“He’s super-fast, athletic and he can throw the ball,” said 49ers running back LaMichael James. “Once he breaks the pocket he’s always looking downfield. He’s looking to throw the ball more than run the ball. But once he takes off, he’s faster than a lot of running backs and linebackers. He’s an incredible athlete.”
Kaepernick has avoided the big hits that have made it difficult for such other running quarterbacks as Griffin and Michael Vick to avoid injuries.
He said his strategy is “Run where they’re not.”
“You want to run away from where the defensive players are,” Kaepernick said. “When they get close, get down.”
The Falcons’ defense has reason to worry about the matchup. Atlanta survived its 30-28 divisional playoff win over Seattle last week despite Wilson’s fourth-quarter dominance. The Falcons led 27-7 at the start of the quarter but trailed 28-27 before winning on Matt Bryant’s late 49-yard field goal.
Wilson passed for 385 yards with two touchdowns and led Seattle with 60 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he is preparing for the 49ers’ “traditional offense that we’re used to seeing” as well as the pistol formation with read-option plays that Kaepernick ran in college at Nevada.
“We’re going to have to be prepared to stop him,” Smith said. “We’re going to see things we haven’t seen in terms of what they’ll do with their formations.”
Wilson found open room when he took off on long runs after first looking to pass. Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said Kaepernick shows more determination to run.
“With Kaepernick, I think once he tucks the ball he’s looking to run,” DeCoud said. “There will be a few rare instances where he has his eyes looking downfield. More times than not, if he’s dropping back and tucks the ball, he’s taking off to run where Russell, he had his head up looking downfield and wasn’t really looking to cross the line of scrimmage. He was just trying to buy time for his guys to get open.”
Kaepernick’s big game last week earned him the promise of more attention from the Falcons defense.
“We definitely have to have somebody accounting for him,” DeCoud said, adding defensive backs have to be ready to leave their assignments to help contain Kaepernick’s runs.
“Last week we kind of bought into plastering the receivers if (Wilson) broke containment because of the fact he likes to find the open receivers,” DeCoud said. “This week, we’ll have to be cognizant of maybe coming off coverage if he crosses the line of scrimmage to thwart him making a big play on us.”
Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said the one obstacle Kaepernick can’t dodge with his speed is inexperience. Sunday’s game will be Kaepernick’s first playoff game on the road.
“You’ve got to get in his mind and change the looks up on him,” Peterson said. “He’s a great quarterback, doing a lot of good things for his team, but the common denominator is that he’s still a young quarterback.
“He can’t run from that.”