The Atlanta Falcons are trying to bounce back. The San Francisco 49ers are looking to salvage their entire season. When the two teams meet up in California Sunday afternoon, there will be plenty at stake for both, and I'm not just saying that to add gravitas to this piece.
Let's map out the roads to victor for both teams.
Don't screw up.
That's the essential message for the Falcons, who are a clearly superior football team in 2015 when you compare them to the 49ers. They have a better quarterback, ground game, wide receivers, (now) tight ends, offensive line, and arguably a better defense. If there was going to be a game this season the Falcons could not lose without me being pissed off, you're looking at it.
Offensively, Atlanta just needs to attack. Give the 49ers a heavy dose of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and frequent strikes to Julio Jones. This defense isn't great any longer, and without top cornerback Kenneth Acker, I'm not sure the 49ers can cook up a decent solution for stopping Julio. If the Falcons feed the playmakers get the ball in the hands of guys like Coleman, whose speed and power makes him deeply intriguing against a 49ers defense that has issues tackling, they'll be in good shape.
Above all, though, avoid turnovers. The Falcons' offense has been bogged down in a nightmare stretch of picks, fumbles, and bad snaps, directly leading to one loss (and arguably both of the team's this season). They need to be more careful with the football, because I feel pretty confident saying that if the 49ers don't get any takeaways, they won't win.
Defensively, it's time to dial up the pressure. Even if the team is without Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford on Sunday, their cornerbacks should be able to keep pace with the 49ers' receivers, though Torrey Smith may demand extra attention. Their ground game is in rough shape minus Carlos Hyde, and Blaine Gabbert notably wilts when he has defenders in his face. I'm not suggesting this is a cakewalk or anything, but if the Falcons can collapse the pocket, the 49ers' offense isn't going anywhere, and they may just cause a couple of turnovers.
This one's a tricky one. San Francisco is a bad football team in 2015, and they don't have a lot of obvious advantages on paper against Atlanta.
Offensively, it's really important for San Francisco to establish the run, even if it'll be tricky. If they're forced to go one-dimensional with Blaine Gabbert at the helm of the offense, chances are there are going to be a lot of turnovers and wasted drives, and the Falcons will gladly take the opportunity to tee off against the notoriously shaky quarterback. Kendall Gaskins has a little bit of promise and Pierre Thomas has been a Falcons killer in the past, so they might be able to get a little bit going, even against one of the league's toughest run defenses. They have to make it a point of emphasis, whether they're immediately successful or not.
On offense, Gabbert has to get rid of the ball quickly, which is an issue because Torrey Smith is the team's biggest threat when he has time to run wild deep. Getting Thomas involved in the passing game is one way to do that, and Garrett Celek is an obvious target given that he's a big tight end against a defense that doesn't defend tight ends particularly well. The last thing the 49ers can afford to do is let Gabbert linger in the pocket looking for the open man, though, and even the Falcons' mediocre pass rush will eat him alive if he has to sit there.
You've got to try to get turnovers on defense, if you're San Francisco. Try to take advantage of a struggling offensive line and get pressure on Matt Ryan, throw three man on Julio Jones if you have to, and do everything in your power to ensure Ryan has the toughest possible throw. You want him out of his rhythm and forcing the ball against tough matchups, and if you can get a couple of interceptions or force a fumble on a big hit, you've got yourself a ballgame.
Against the run, you just have to play disciplined and stick to your gap assignments in order to at least slow Devonta Freeman down. I don't think San Francisco can afford to stack the box against Freeman with the state of their secondary.
It'll be tough sledding for the 49ers in this one, but if they can get a couple of turnovers and dictate the flow of the game, anything is possible. We'll just hope this is a blowout for Atlanta.