The Falcons (4-9) did it: they completed the sweep over the struggling Panthers (5-8) with a 40-20 victory in Week 14. A strong performance from both sides of the ball, including the best rushing game of the season and two picks from Damontae Kazee, proved overwhelming against a Carolina team in complete disarray.
This week, Atlanta travels to take on an NFC juggernaut: the San Francisco 49ers (11-2). Kyle Shanahan’s squad is fresh off a last-second victory over the Saints, which was punctuated by one of the greatest TE catch-and-runs in NFL history. The 49ers are dominant on offense and defense and are a bonafide Super Bowl contender. Can the Falcons possibly keep pace with such a strong opponent in a lost season?
To do so, they’ll need excellent play from both sides of the ball. Here are some of the most interesting players to watch when Atlanta takes on San Francisco in Week 15.
Russell Gage and the depth WRs
With Calvin Ridley placed on IR with an abdominal injury, there’s a significant hole in the WR depth chart. The Falcons already lost Mohamed Sanu via trade, so there’s no “easy” option to step into the WR2 role. Getting the first shot at the receiver spot opposite Julio Jones will be second-year player Russell Gage, who has thus far performed admirably as the WR3.
Gage isn’t quite as polished a route-runner, or as dynamic an athlete, as Ridley. However, Gage has showcased very strong hands and ability to go up and get the football in traffic. There will likely be a drop-off between the two, but Gage should keep the offense afloat. Meanwhile, the Falcons will be depending on depth WRs like Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus to pick up the slack at WR3. The 49ers defense is arguably the toughest test the Falcons will face all season, so seeing how well the young players perform against them will be valuable information for 2020.
The run defense
Atlanta is no stranger to facing strong rushing attacks this season, having faced several of the NFL’s top-10 rushing offenses—including the Panthers twice. For the most part, Atlanta has held their own against them and has actually put together a quality season against the run: the Falcons are currently T-15th in rushing yardage allowed and an impressive T-7th in yards per carry allowed (just 4.0 on the season).
San Francisco’s run game is arguably even more dangerous than their pass game, and keeping the 49ers’ stable of running backs in check will be key to limiting their offense. Shanahan’s offense lives off of play-action, and is nearly unstoppable when it can pick up chunk yardage on the ground. We’ll see if Tyeler Davison, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones and company can make life difficult on the ground for the 49ers.
The offensive line
Last week, the Falcons faced the NFL’s most ferocious pass rush in the Panthers. All-in-all, the offensive line did a very good job of keeping Matt Ryan clean. Next up are the 49ers, who are nearly as good—they’re currently 3rd in sacks with 45.
The OL looked considerably better with rookie Chris Lindstrom and UDFA Matt Gono rotating at RG in Week 14. Presumably, Lindstrom will be ready to assume the full starting reps on Sunday. But what about Gono? With Schweitzer limited at practice and James Carpenter ruled out, will he get a chance to play at LG? I hope so, because if Gono can show starting ability at G—we already know he’s a capable swing tackle—that could be a huge help to Atlanta in 2020.
Devonta Freeman and Brian Hill
We’ve talked about the strength of the 49ers—their pass defense—but what about their weakness? If they have one, it’s their run defense: San Francisco currently allows 116.6 rushing yards/game (22nd) and 4.6 yards per carry (T-24th). Unfortunately, the Falcons have struggled to run the ball in all but a handful of games in 2019.
Last week against Carolina, who have arguably the NFL’s worst run defense, Atlanta managed to actually get their rushing attack going. Can they do it again against the 49ers? It’ll take a strong day from Devonta Freeman—who looked like his old self against the Panthers—and Brian Hill to give the Falcons any chance of pulling off a miraculous upset on the road.
The pass rush
Let’s be honest here: if the Falcons want to pull off a win in Week 15, they’ll need to make some magic happen. One of the best ways to do that is by forcing the opposing QB into poor throws and bad decisions. While 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo has been having an excellent season, no QB is immune to a fierce pass rush putting them on the turf early and often.
The Falcons’ pass rush has been as inconsistent as they come. They’ll put up 5+ sack performances against good-to-great offensive lines (the Saints come to mind), and then go over a month without logging a single sack. San Francisco’s offensive line has been ravaged by injury, but has still managed to play well due to Shanahan’s creative scheming. The Falcons pass rush will have to find a way to get home if they want to stay alive in this game.
Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the 49ers on Sunday?