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Falcons - 49ers recap: Atlanta topples NFC’s top team with top-notch effort

Atlanta fought like hell against a superior opponent and won, despite our modest expectations.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Falcons were too sloppy in this one, but they also kept a game they had no business even being in quite close. I wound up frustrated by the miscues and the officiating more than anything else, which is the mark of a rare good Falcons loss.

That’s the intro paragraph I had typed up before the wildest finish in recent memory. It was a fair one, given that Atlanta played a tough game to get close to San Francisco late, but it also underestimated the Falcons’ fight by an order of magnitude. The team that couldn’t get it done all year just beat the best team in the NFC in the final seconds of the game, and added on an additional score on the final kickoff for good measure. I could not, if you gave me the wisdom of ages, properly capture my feelings about that one.

Atlanta put themselves in the position to get Julio Jones breaking the plane and Olamide Zaccheaus snagging his second touchdown in two weeks by playing tough, competitive football all day. They largely held a potent 49ers offense in check, with Jimmy Garoppolo putting together an extremely quiet day outside of passes to George Kittle. The offense wasn’t stellar but came through at the most critical moments, with Jones leading the charge as a huge target sponge in a game where Ryan desperately needed the outlet.

Ultimately, this win doesn’t fix a thing, and while I suggested in the heat of the moment after the game that it’ll be part of the evaluation for coaches and players in the offseason, I don’t think it saves Dan Quinn’s job. What it does do is remind everyone involved with the Falcons what they are fully capable of achieving, which should stay talk of a full scale rebuild and did give us one more afternoon to enjoy what might have been this season.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Vic Beasley continues to play quite well. Through the first half of the year he certainly had his quality moments, but the sacks weren’t there, and as a result the Falcons dangled him at the deadline and got nothing. Now he’s rolling, picking up yet another sack in this one and making a couple of nice open field tackles. Whether he’s coming back on a deal the Falcons can afford or headed elsewhere, this hot streak is helping him land his next deal.
  • Speaking of defenders earning another contract, De’Vondre Campbell put forth a game effort against George Kittle—albeit a losing one—and did a stellar job of recovering the third quarter Niners fumble to give the Falcons a chance. He just keeps making plays here, and is young enough and talented enough to get a huge deal in the near future.
  • Grady Jarrett got hit with a ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty—more on that later—but he was stellar once again in this one. The rare beneficiary of a mega contract who immediately seems to get better, Jarrett is the building block this defense needs to build around.
  • Matt Ryan didn’t have his most impressive game statistically, but he largely avoided costly mistakes minus a throw right at a defender that was somehow not picked. That consistently solid play—and some stellar spirals late in the game—helped Atlanta to a win. He’s put up seven of his interceptions in just three games, but otherwise he’s enjoying another typically above average year, if not one to quite the same heights he reached in 2016 and 2018.
  • If you love football for its aesthetic beauty, you love Julio Jones. His second quarter sideline grab was a masterclass of body control and awareness, as he hauled in an amazing downfield grab for 28 yards. He then proceeded to take over, catching a ton of balls and capping things off with an easy touchdown. But it was the Michael Thomas-esque way he took over that game —as much as I hated to write that—that ultimately defined this one, as he reeled in 13 catches for 134 yards and beat the 49ers defense like a pinata. The two scores ended up being the true difference maker, but even with some missed connections, Julio was truly dominant in a way he hasn’t always been this year. It was the difference in this one.

The Falcons have been smart to build an offense that doesn’t have to rely on Julio Jones, but when they need him to step up, he does. I will watch this man play football gladly as long as he can.

  • The offensive line wasn’t perfect here, but man were they pretty good. I’ll have to look at the snap counts at right guard, but I do know that Wes Schweitzer, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary all did fine work in this one, with McGary doing particularly stellar work as a run blocker.

Special mention for Jake Matthews, who gets pooped on a lot by this fanbase. It’s not an exaggeration to say his blocking against Nick Bosa helped win this game. Watching him wrestle one of the league’s best young pass rushers to a standstill, particularly when Ryan needed to step up and make throws, was inspiring.

  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson ought to be back next year. All he’s done since he came to Atlanta is play at a high level, and in this one he nearly picked Jimmy Garoppolo and made a huge play against George Kittle in the end zone to prevent a touchdown late in the second quarter. He belongs in Atlanta over the long haul.
  • Overall, the Falcons defense put forth a truly heroic effort in this one. The run defense stumbled a bit—a sour note ahead on that one—but they kept Jimmy Garoppolo in check and stopped him from getting comfortable throughout. That was enough to keep the Falcons into the game until the offense could rally, which happened quite late in this one. Considering Takk exited early and Trufant was out, and considering there was only one turnover in this one, sustained applause is deserved here.

Remember, the 49ers just scored 48 points against the Saints a week ago. This was an incredible effort.

  • The coaching staff has taken a beating all year, and justifiably so. Dirk Koetter has struggled to get the most out of this team and Dan Quinn’s bumbling management of the team in general and defense more specifically in the first half of the year was costly. They still remain likely to lose their jobs, which is unfortunate but perfectly justifiable given the expectations for the Falcons coming into the year.

In spite of the Koetter frustrations and the clock management woes in this one—and Ben Kotwica’s special teams units having a rough day overall—this was a well-coached game. It was also a game where the Falcons were fighting like hell for one another and their coaches, and that effort led to them beating arguably the best team in the NFC. I don’t claim to know what Arthur Blank is going to do at the end of the year, but I know this game and the beatdown of the Saints on the road were the two most persuasive cases this coaching staff has put together for staying around, and that they’re compelling as those cases go.

  • I love that Younghoe Koo, if not for the 10 men on the field penalty, would have managed another successful onside kick. I love that Olamide Zaccheaus scored his second touchdown in two weeks, but this time it was picking up an errant lateral on the final 49ers kickoff return of the game. I love this random, dumb team, in spite of everything.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons were going to be challenged to stop the 49ers ground game no matter who was on the field, but the early loss of Takk McKinley only increased that challenge. The Falcons weren’t able to win all their matchups up front and missed some key tackles in the open field, leading to the kind of productive day on the ground you would’ve expected from San Francisco.

The caveat, of course, is that it wasn’t as productive as it could’ve been, given that the 49ers have been killing guys on the ground all year.

  • The Falcons were also going to struggle with George Kittle, but I was hoping they wouldn’t struggle to the extent they did. Multiple times, Kittle caught the ball with Falcons defenders in his jersey and was able to turn it into additional yardage, and he finished the day with a career high number of catches. I thought De’Vondre Campbell had a good day on balance, but his tight end coverage has not been stellar this year.
  • Atlanta’s passing attack did enough to keep them in the game, but it was not the prolific attack I expected. Matt Ryan threw over 30 passes but did not make it past 200 yards, finding consistent success with short passes and quick strikes that didn’t break the game open. Given that Ryan had time earlier in the game to make throws, it’s a little disappointing the Falcons didn’t do more with that, even if he was otherwise solid all day.
  • Special teams was a problem to start the second half. When you recover an onside kick with ten guys on the field and ruin a great return with a block in the back, you’re not quite playing up to snuff.

More pointedly, coaching was a problem to start the second half. The Falcons missed ten men on the field, they called a screen on third and long from their own goal line in the third quarter when it was obvious the 49ers were going to keep sending heat, and they couldn’t adjust to the obvious adjustments San Francisco was making. This team has been a roller coaster, but they never let us lose sight of why they got into trouble for very long, especially when Dan Quinn is calling mystery timeouts in the fourth quarter.

  • Kenjon Barner has done well all year, but the fumble on the fourth quarter punt return was so deeply unfortunate. The 49rs him
  • NFL officiating and the NFL rulebook still badly need to be overhauled. The missed call on the Saints in last year’s playoffs could have resulted in some legitimate soul-searching, with the league trying to figure out a smart way to get their referees to do the smart thing and to get more plays called effectively. Instead, they just keep missing it, as they did in the second quarter when Julio Jones’ jersey was grabbed throughout his route to the end zone and a penalty wasn’t called and couldn’t be called on a review because it wasn’t technically pass interference, even though it was a clear penalty. Every team in the NFL deals with this on a regular basis, and frankly it needs to change.

It’s even worse when the officials are feeling their oats, as they were Sunday when they called two roughing the passer penalties on the Falcons for going low, neither of which were actually anything close to dirty plays. Both proved costly, however, and again you just have to take a deep breath and remember that the Falcons aren’t being targeted. They’re the victims of a poor rulebook and poor enforcement, as is every team in the NFL.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Julio Jones. He was the best receiver on the field yesterday, and with his two scores and countless clutch grabs, he was the difference maker in this one. The crazy thing is that he could’ve had an even bigger day, given that he and Ryan were a little off at times in this one.

One Takeaway

Atlanta’s capable of beating any team in the league on their best day. Well, maybe not the Ravens, but almost any team.

Next Week

The Jaguars! Jacksonville hasn’t been great this year and Atlanta’s suddenly rolling, so who knows. Visit Big Cat Country for more.

Final Word