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Falcons vs. 49ers: The most compelling story lines

Can the Falcons pull off a miraculous upset in their final high-profile game of the season?

Atlanta Falcons v JacksonvileJaguars

When the NFL schedule comes out in April, there are certain games that stand out over others. The 49ers were considered as one of the weaker NFC teams going into the season. That didn’t take away from the intrigue of this matchup. Kyle Shanahan’s first game against the Falcons was always going to garner plenty of interest. What the offensive mastermind did in 2016 with Matt Ryan will forever be remembered. Unfortunately, Shanahan’s final game as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator won’t be forgotten either. For all the history they made in the regular season and success they achieved in the playoffs, there is no denying the Super Bowl collapse left a bitter taste in many people’s mouth.

There isn’t necessarily any bad blood between both teams. Ryan has spoken openly about his appreciation for Shanahan. How could the coach of the year favorite not be respected? Without Shanahan, there is no telling if Ryan ever wins the NFL MVP. Ryan will have a chip on his shoulder going into this daunting matchup. Facing arguably the best defense in the league on the road presents a difficult challenge. With star players injured and the talent level being nowhere near San Francisco, Dan Quinn’s team must play a perfect game to produce another remarkable upset.

Coaching intrigue

The reunion wasn’t guaranteed two months ago. With the Falcons in complete free fall, speculation began to mount about a coaching change. A tremendous performance over New Orleans essentially secured Quinn’s position as head coach for the remainder of the season. It also secured the chance to see him face Shanahan. After working together for two seasons, it will be fascinating to see how these coaches have evolved. One of the main critiques about Quinn’s coaching style is his inability to evolve. The stubbornness of playing a Cover 3 based defense without many coverage disguises or blitzes has left many questioning him. If any coach can exploit weaknesses, Shanahan is on top of the list.

Another interesting aspect of this matchup is the presence of Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich. Both coaches have experience working with Shanahan. Quinn’s decision to allocate play calling duties to both coaches has benefited the defense. They’ve helped improve communication on the back end and devised blitzes up front to generate pressure. While the increased aggression was needed, it must be channeled going into this matchup. Shanahan knows how to beat blitzes with his personnel. Between calling screens to their collection of running backs to quick-hitting passing plays designed for their yard-gobbling wide receivers, San Francisco can punish defenses in a plethora of ways, particularly with how often they used pre-snap motion.

Shanahan is known for annihilating Cover 3 based defenses. Regardless of the opposing defense’s talent level, his intelligence in finding openings and abusing mismatches within the scheme is proven. Look no further than what he did with the Falcons against Seattle in the 2017 playoffs. His play action concepts are designed to erase defenders out of plays. That gives players like George Kittle and Deebo Samuel acres of space to do damage after the catch. Both players are at the top of their respective positions with the ball in their hands. How the coaching staff prepares their players to remain disciplined and organized will go a long way in limiting big plays. They must be positionally sound to prevent Jimmy Garoppolo from making high-percentage throws. To do it without their top cornerback presents another challenge in being able to accomplish this.

The loss of Desmond Trufant and Calvin Ridley

It doesn’t get much more brutal than losing two-star players following a game. Trufant and Ridley are two of the more valuable players on the roster. For the second time in the last four years, Trufant’s season has ended on injured reserve. Losing an experienced, talented player on a young, flawed defense is a huge blow. Trufant has quietly put together one of the better seasons of his career. Besides producing a career-high four interceptions, his change of direction ability in man coverage and awareness in zone coverage has greatly improved. There were some mental lapses in 2017 and 2018. That hasn’t been the case too often in 2019. His strong season may silence questions about his future as a player to be potentially traded.

Kendall Sheffield and Blidi Wreh-Wilson will be largely responsible for replacing Trufant. After a strong start to his rookie year, Sheffield has endured some lapses in recent weeks. His inconsistent open field tackling isn’t the only issue. The lack of awareness on crossing patterns is another issue that repeatedly shows up on film. For all the promise Sheffield has shown, the rookie corner is still a work in progress. The possibility of covering a tremendous route-runner like Emmanuel Sanders should give him valuable experience. Shanahan moves Sanders around more often than other receivers. That means Sheffield could match up with him on the outside and inside. Quinn will shift Sheffield to the slot on nickel sets with Wreh-Wilson being used in Trufant’s traditional spot on the left.

After Julio Jones and Austin Hooper returned last week, there was excitement about Ryan’s supporting cast being fully healthy. That didn’t last long with Ridley suffering an abdominal injury. It comes at a disappointing time as Ridley was starting to come into his own. He started to find his niche in Dirk Koetter’s offense. It leaves a mostly untested group of receivers to replace him. Russell Gage is starting to emerge as a full-time receiver. Although he is at his best in the slot, Gage will be used in more two-wide receiver sets. Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus should receive plenty of opportunities as well. How Zaccheaus’ breakaway speed is utilized in the offense will be one thing to monitor going into the final three games. Roasting Donte Jackson and leaving him on the turf for a 93-yard touchdown creates some optimism that he could replace Ridley from a vertical threat standpoint.

Offensive line gets another massive test

For all their offensive success, the most terrifying aspect of San Francisco is on the defensive side of the ball. John Lynch has assembled a defensive line filled with speed, power, and versatility. Losing Dee Ford for the remainder of the regular season does make them slightly less frightening off the edge. They still possess tremendous talent across their front four. Nick Bosa has taken the league by storm in his rookie season. His get-off and hand usage continues to give opposing tackles nightmares. The interior rotation of DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, and D.T. Jones causes havoc on a weekly basis. They’ve been the driving force behind the 49ers developing into Super Bowl contenders.

The Falcons are starting to take positive steps towards solidifying their fragmented offensive line. To get Chris Lindstrom back from injury and finally use Matt Gono has given them some firmness inside. Both offensive linemen were impressive against Carolina. They stood out in the run game, particularly Lindstrom when cross pulling. Koetter will be looking to run the ball following last week’s success. Despite the emphasis being on establishing the run, how well they pass protect is going to be vital for their success. No team has a higher sack rate than San Francisco per NFL Matchup on ESPN.

There is a possibility that Lindstrom and Gono will start. Wes Schweitzer left last week with a shoulder injury. To have both guards in the starting lineup would give the Falcons arguably their strongest starting lineup of the season. That won’t necessarily translate into success, especially given how much Robert Saleh likes to blitz. Avoiding third and long situations will be imperative for the Falcons. When teams face third and long against Saleh’s defense, he will bring six rushers to wreck the pocket. They have tormented opposing teams with their ruthless approach. Alex Mack must be at the forefront of diagnosing blitzes and keeping everything stabilized. This game goes beyond one on one matchups in the trenches. How the offensive line stays organized in identifying blitzes and twists is going to determine if Ryan takes another grueling beating or not.