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This week’s big Falcons question: Can the team keep Matt Ryan clean?

It’ll take a balanced effort to beat the 49ers, and it’ll take keeping Matt Ryan’s pocket clean to accomplish that.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As has been the case more than once this year, the Falcons are facing off against an opponent they don’t match up well with on paper. It’s hard to find any one thing that looms as a significant concern for the Falcons, because their passing game is up against a tough 49ers defense, their defense is going to have to contain a capable and balanced San Francisco attack, and so forth.

Yet I find myself focusing on the passing game again, because while it was sharper against the Panthers than it has been in some time, it’s also not close to being the significant asset it has been throughout most of the Matt Ryan era. With Nick Bosa on deck and a pass rush that took down Joe Burrow five times coming to town, can the Falcons

Let’s start with the Falcons side of this.

Ryan is not close to the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL, but he’s been impacted in more subtle ways. Per Pro Football Reference, no quarterback has been hit more than Ryan—they have him listed at 71, or 11 more than Carson Wentz, who is second on the list—pressured 131 times (4th-highest total in the NFL) for 27.1% of his dropbacks (5th-highest total in the NFL). Ryan does not, as a rule, throw the ball away, as he’s done so the 6th-fewest times among quarterbacks with 10 or more games under their belts, and he also has only tucked it away and scrambled 10 times. He’s also losing more yards every time he’s sacked than he did a year ago, as he averaged 6.3 yards lost per sack in 2020 and is averaging 7.5 in 2021. Ryan has had admirable stretches where he’s hung in and delivered quality balls while under pressure, but by and large this season, bad things have happened when pass rushes are impacting him.

The Falcons can’t win against the 49ers with the ground game alone, but more than that, they can’t afford to have drives killed because Ryan is sacked or is making potentially risky throws under pressure. Arthur Smith badly wants this to be a balanced attack, one where Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson can punish defenses on early downs and either roll downfield or set up manageable third downs, but all it takes is one ill-timed sack to completely murder a drive. It’s happened too many times this season, often because Ryan

The San Francisco pass rush is capable of being a nightmare for this Falcons team, though their sack total (9th-highest in the NFL) doesn’t tell the full story. PFR has their pressure total, pressure rate, hurry rate and quarterback knockdowns in the bottom quarter of the league, which indicates more than anything a level of inconsistency. Nick Bosa is an absolute menace and this is a very capable group, and they’re going to need to be great Sunday with injuries impacting San Francisco’s secondary and creating some exploitable matchups for the Falcons. Considering they just took down Burrow five times last week, the Falcons offensive line is also going to have to be at the very top of their game to stop them, and they’ve swung between impressive efforts (Carolina) and brutal ones (Tampa Bay) all year.

I don’t think the Falcons can shut out the 49ers in the sack column or keep Ryan from feeling any heat, because even with his recent improvement Kaleb McGary against Nick Bosa is a tough matchup. I do think that the Falcons can do enough to keep this offense functional, however, and I think that’s going to be absolutely essential if the Falcons are going to pull off the upset.