Following an underwhelming four-game stretch, Atlanta enters a critical stage of the season. They could find themselves two games behind Carolina with another poor performance. With key players such as William Moore, Justin Durant, Leonard Hankerson, and Robert Alford possibly missing Sunday's game, role players will be called upon to play significant roles.
Thankfully for the Falcons' sake, San Francisco is arguably the worst team in the league. The offense lacks playmakers without Carlos Hyde and Anquan Boldin. After seeing players leave, retire, or become too much of an off-field distraction, the defense has unsurprisingly regressed. Colin Kaepernick has gone from crushing Falcon fans' dreams to being replaced by one of the most notable busts over the past decade. This matchup couldn't be more favorable for Atlanta, yet many analysts have said that for the past four games. It's time for a complete performance to go into the bye on a high note. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Focusing on fundamentals
It's frustrating to use such a basic topic, but the Falcons have left me no other choice. The number of turnovers caused by their own ineptitude has made this a talking point. Bad teams find a way to win and often benefit from an opposing team's individual mistakes,and Atlanta gave Tampa Bay just that opportunity a week ago.
Atlanta can't continue this stretch of turning the ball over nine times in three games, which includes five turnovers inside the red zone. They have allowed bad teams to either remain in or eventually win games. Winning the turnover battle helped them greatly in close wins against New York and Dallas. That needs to occur here, which shouldn't be too difficult against San Francisco's current starting quarterback. It will be up to the offense to simply execute like they did in September.
Continuing to make Blaine Gabbert look hopeless
Besides committing nine turnovers in the last three games, there is another telling stat behind Atlanta's recent poor stretch. The defense has failed to cause a turnover in both losses, but have forced at least one turnover in each win. It's difficult to be so dependent on turnovers, especially with many offenses relying heavily on short passes. Game-clinching interceptions against Philadelphia and Tennessee are prime examples of how important turnovers are, as is Kroy Biermann's memorable strip-sack against New York.
With such a favorable matchup, they need to harass Gabbert and force the game into his hands. He struggled with pocket awareness during his entire tenure in Jacksonville. Staring down his receiving options was another major issue. Colin Kaepernick's benching was deserved, but can San Francisco seriously consider this move as an upgrade? Tim Hasselbeck has publicly lambasted the move, and this couldn't be a better matchup for Atlanta's defense, as Dan Quinn needs to unleash blitzes and take advantage of a team lacking playmakers. It can't hurt to have some bulletin-board material either.
Offensive line needs to regain solidarity
Whenever a shocking upset occurs, some issues get lost in the process of digesting a horrific performance. The offensive line is one of those issues.
According to Pro Football Focus, Atlanta's offensive line allowed five hits and 13hurries out of 45 passing attempts. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder had their fits against George Johnson and Howard Jones. Matthews was also responsible for allowing Gerald McCoy to grab a hold of Matt Ryan's leg on fourth down in overtime, which sealed Atlanta's fate.
The West Coast trip is always tricky, and in one case, this game is no exception. Aaron Lynch has developed into one of the better pass rushers in the league. Ahmad Brooks can still pose problems off the edge. San Francisco has some pieces inside their front seven that are capable of being difference makers. Tennessee generated steady pressure in the first half, while Cameron Jordan single-handily carried the Saints pass rush by sacking Matt Ryan three times. From Mike Person's botched snaps to Matthews struggling over the past two weeks, the offensive line needs to bounce back in a massive way. It has been well documented that the run blocking has been outstanding. The pass blocking needs to improve for Ryan to have more throwing opportunities downfield or at least go through his progressions.
The weekly Matt Ryan watch
Ryan improved in the second half against Tampa Bay, but he will be monitored closely once again by wary fans. October may have been the worst month of his career, with the veteran throwing just four touchdowns and four interceptions. Although it wasn't fancy, his performance against Tampa Bay was efficient, especially considering he only had three healthy wide receivers. Ryan had to improvise a dink-and-dunk offense in coming back from a 17 point deficit. Eleven penalties and four turnovers were major setbacks that eventually became too much to overcome.
Many people have wondered about Ryan's outlook going into the second part of the season. Devonta Freeman's emergence was supposed to make things easier, since Ryan hasn't played with a competent running game since 2011. Ryan is facing heavy adversity for the first time in years, even so.
The pressure is on to keep up with Carolina until December. Ryan needs to play turnover free football, along with finishing drives in the red zone. Defenses have started to key on Freeman inside the red zone following the fourth-and-goal debacle against Tennessee. It will be up to Ryan and Shanahan to finish drives like they did in September. Utilizing Levine Toilolo would be wise, as the limited six-foot-eight tight end should be effective by using his size against much smaller safeties
Jacob Tamme's emergence
When Atlanta signed Tamme in March, the move received little fanfare. Some fans were actually more intrigued by Tony Moeaki. They viewed Tamme as a safety target for Ryan, while Moeaki had some potential left from a productive rookie season. Circumstances have obviously changed over the past two months based on the former Bronco developing into Ryan's second option. He has earned Ryan's trust by constantly making excellent catches in traffic and finding small creases to get open.
With Hankerson possibly not playing, Tamme should remain as the second biggest focal point of the passing attack. San Francisco has struggled significantly covering tight ends this season. NaVarro Bowman has surprisingly allowed a passer rating of 123.4 according to Pro Football Focus. The star inside linebacker has struggled to fully recover from a horrific torn ACL and MCL injury. Opportunities will be there for Tamme to continue moving the chains on a consistent basis. In a month full of disappointing and sloppy play, he has shined through each game by making several key catches on third and fourth down. You can make a case for him being Atlanta's best free-agent signing.