The Falcons playoff hopes may be on the line this Sunday as they face off against the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan. His offensive prowess will be on display on the coast and Atlanta will need a big effort from this Dean Pees defense to limit their scoring.
Can they do it? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
In the trenches
Right now, the Falcons defensive front consists of Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler and a bunch of guys, as we’ve noted repeatedly. Fowler has been more effective this year, but his health is a big question mark heading into this game. What little pass rush the Falcons have relies on these two men. That said, this unit has improved dramatically in limiting the run in recent weeks. The addition of Anthony Rush has helped bolster the size up front and it’s made a difference. Given Shanahan’s desire to stay balanced offensively, stopping the run will be important, and the Falcons are better-positioned to do it.
Unfortunately, the 49ers have a very good offensive line anchored by former Falcon Alex Mack. He may be on the back end of his career, but he’s still playing well. The same is true for Trent Williams, but he’s still performing as one of the best left tackles in the league. There are no real weak spots on this line, which also includes former Falcons Tom Compton and Daniel Brunskill.
Atlanta just isn’t in competition here. Until they can revamp the talent up front, they’re going to be a perpetual underdog.
The skill positions
The Atlanta secondary is lifted by the absolute brilliance of A.J. Terrell, who is deserving of not only Pro Bowl consideration, but All-Pro consideration. He has become one of the best corners in the league.
Fabian Moreau is actually a competent #2 cornerback, but he’s targeted frequently because of how good Terrell has become. Darren Hall is manning the slot now as a rookie and ... well, he looks like a rookie most of the time. The loss of Erik Harris at safety will hurt, but fans will get an extended look at Jaylinn Hawkins and probably Richie Grant as well. Linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are both hit and miss this year.
Jimmy Garoppolo is almost certainly going to be on another team next year. He’s proven to be serviceable, but not someone to anchor your franchise on. He’s got one of the best receivers in the league in Deebo Samuel and the best tight end in the league in George Kittle. While the talent is there, it hasn’t completely come together for the 49ers just yet. They’ve scored 28 or more six times this year, but have also been held to 10 or less 3 times.
As good as Terrell is, the guys around him are either average or below average in their play this year. This unit is improving, but they are outmatched here.
It’s highly unlikely that the Falcons defense is going to outperform the 49ers on Sunday. The best you can hope for is that they limit the damage, which may be possible. A good bit will depend on Dante Fowler and his status, but he’s still not enough to flip the script. Look for the 49ers offense to mostly have their way on Sunday.