FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. Relatively anonymous just two months ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become an NFL sensation.
The Turlock native is on the national cover of the latest Sports Illustrated. His touchdown celebration, in which he kisses a biceps after flexing it, has inspired a "Kapernicking" meme among fans.
In spite of all of that, though, Kaepernick comes to the Georgia Dome for the NFC Championship game Sunday as a relatively unseasoned quarterback.
"He's a great quarterback and doing great things for his team," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. "He's still a young quarterback. He can't run from that."
But, man, Kaepernick sure can run.
He set an NFL record for a quarterback with 181 yards rushing in San Francisco's divisional playoff victory against the Packers. That included a 56-yard touchdown run in which he left behind much-smaller defensive backs.
Then again, none of those defenders had a chance to touch Kaepernick.
"That's one of those things if you get an opportunity to blow somebody up and make a statement, that's what you want to do," Falcons safety William Moore said.
The Falcons have to catch Kaepernick first. They also have to account for his big arm. They've had trouble doing both against other so-called running quarterbacks this season.
Seattle's Russell Wilson totaled 445 yards against the Falcons on Sunday while leading a comeback from 20 points down in the fourth quarter. During the regular season, Carolina's Cam Newton gave the Falcons problems both running and passing in two games.
Atlanta's problems containing Newton might be the most relevant this week. The Falcons say Kaepernick is more comparable to Newton than to Wilson because of his size (6-foot-4½, 230 pounds) and his speed.
"He's got open-field speed," Falcons defensive coordinator and former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan said. "He's probably as fast as any of the guys in the open field."
The Falcons say Kaepernick and Wilson also differ in their styles.
Wilson generally uses his running ability in service of the passing game. Several times he made plays against the Falcons by side-stepping the rush and scanning for open receivers.
Falcons defenders said Kaepernick doesn't spend much time looking to pass.
"If he can hit a seam and find some green grass he will be able to find a lot of yards with his top-end speed," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But I think he is more of a 'one-read and go' guy, where Russell was more contemplative in the pocket."
Judging by the poor angles they took while trying to tackle him, Green Bay's defenders seemed surprised by Kaepernick's speed. They shouldn't have been since he was a successful read-option quarterback in college at Nevada and had two runs of at least 50 yards during the regular season.
Kaepernick has a long, gangly gait that makes it look as if he's not running very hard.
"You look at him and you think 'long-striders' aren't fast, but they are covering a lot of ground and they are passing people," said Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who played against Kaepernick alongside Moore while at Missouri. "You can tell he can run. Speed won't be a surprise to us at all. We watched the tape. We will be ready to go."
So far Kaepernick has been able to avoid taking big hits from defenders, which is considered the main drawback for running quarterbacks. He said he had a simple plan for avoiding them.
"You want to run away from where the defensive players are," he said. "When they get close, get down."
San Francisco's versatility could complicate the Falcons' efforts to slow Kaepernick. The 49ers line up in power formations and pound away with Frank Gore behind a big, physical offensive line. Receiver Michael Crabtree has developed into a threat. Kaepernick hasn't looked for star tight end Vernon Davis much, but might Sunday after Seattle's Zach Miller had eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons.