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3 Up, 3 Down: The offensive-line and red-zone woes are linked

Keeping track of which Falcons are rising and falling throughout the 2021 season.

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Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Atlanta looked like it was ready for a piece of San Francisco right out of the gate, but the Falcons got way more than they could handle in their 31-13 road loss. The primary takeaway is that the loss really cripples the team’s playoff chances; the secondary note is that yet again there is a clear divide between the Falcons and the NFL’s best.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the strengths and flaws of this squad over the offseason, but this is among the games that illustrate just how far the Falcons need to go.

Up

WR Russell Gage

Russell Gage was among those who showed up ready to go for Sunday’s matchup. Outside of one drop – and it could be suggested that ball rose on Matt Ryan a bit over the middle on that throw – Gage was excellent. For an offense that has lacked explosive passing plays, Gage provided that as the team’s No. 1 perimeter threat. His 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter ended a gutsy Falcons drive that tied the game at 10-apiece and answered a big 49ers’ score.

With eight catches for 91 yards and the touchdown, Gage turned in his second-most-productive performance of 2021. It could have helped the Falcons pull off the upset, but he’ll have to settle for this shoutout.

CB A.J. Terrell

I generally try to include both sides of the ball in these, but once again, A.J. Terrell was the only defensive player really worthy of a mention. The defense was, by and large, a sieve against an explosive hammer of an offense, but Terrell continued his wonderful campaign.

According to Pro Football Focus’s initial game recap, Terrell played 24 coverage snaps but allowed just one 9-yard reception on three targets while yet again forcing a great incompletion against an elite opposing receiver (Deebo Samuel). I suspect that as the months tick by after the final game is played, Terrell’s emergence will be rightfully seen as the true positive takeaway from the year.

RB Qadree Ollison

If you happened to miss the opening kickoff, you missed Qadree Ollison doing everything he could to put the Falcons in the driver’s seat early on. Unfortunately, it may have ultimately had the opposite effect (more on that in a moment), but that has nothing to do with Ollison. His special teams play set the Falcons up beautifully to strike first, took the energy out of an enthusiastic Levi’s Stadium crowd and seemed to signal that Atlanta wasn’t here to mess around.

Alas, it didn’t continue. Ollison’s hard-running style has endeared himself to the fans, but he’s still fighting for his share of offensive snaps. It’s nice to see him making an impact where he can, though, and that should go a long way with the coaches.

Down

Red-zone Offense

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A significant portion of the momentum Ollison earned for the Falcons with his forced fumble, if not all of it, was won back by the 49ers with their four-down stop at the goal line. A booth review overturned a seeming Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown run, and it portended a difficult day to come in the red zone. Overall, the Falcons were 1-of-5 inside the 20-yard line, but they were shut out in their three goal-to-go opportunities.

Citing the Elias Sports Bureau, the 49ers’ official game notes mentions “this was the first time in the last 40 years that a team forced their opponent to turn the ball over on downs within the 10-yard line three or more times in a single game.” There’s no doubt that red-zone play defined the outcome of Sunday’s game, and the Falcons still struggle when asked to go toe-to-toe in short-yardage areas against their best competition.

Offensive line

Another blanket submission for an aspect of the team. A large portion of the Falcons’ red-zone woes can be linked to the offensive line. Their inability to give Matt Ryan the time to go through his progressions (or even complete his drop back) hamstrung the offense. Poor pass protection has been a theme against the league’s best, and that was absolutely the case on Sunday.

Every single starting lineman allowed a pressure, and PFF noted 22 pressures, 15 defensive stops and five tackles for a loss for San Francisco’s defensive line. Ryan was sacked three times, but that number alone doesn’t reflect how much heat he was under. Not to mention, the Falcons couldn’t consistently move the ball on the ground. More questions are creeping up about a group that seemed to be finding its groove in the middle of the season, and the trenches should be a primary focus for Atlanta this offseason.

LB Deion Jones

Teams have really started to attack the middle of the field against this defense. Part of that might be the development of Terrell on the outside, and part of that might be some of the zone schemes Dean Pees employs. Whatever the case, it’s led to a lot of work for Deion Jones. As one of the key middle-field defenders, Jones is crucial at helping limit explosive plays.

He’s been up-and-down in accomplishing that this year, but Sunday was a clear down moment for the athletic defender. George Kittle is a tough matchup for virtually anybody in the league, and it may not be fair to call this a true “matchup” because of zone assignments, but there was once a time when fans would be excited to see Jones up against such a test. As Sunday showed, that probably is no longer the case. Kittle and Deebo Samuel could do virtually whatever they wanted against Atlanta’s defense, finishing with a combined 10 catches on 11 targets for 153 yards. And if the 49ers had been inclined to throw the ball more over the middle of the field, those numbers could easily be much higher.