The Falcons aren’t getting any breaks. After having to play Tampa Bay and (at times) the officiating crew in Tampa last Sunday, the Falcons head home to play a banged-up but very tough 49ers team, and then get to face an improving Bengals squad. It’s a rough three game stretch, and to stay competitive the rest of the year, the Falcons would ideally win at least one of these next two games before they get to beat up on a lousy Panthers team.
This group is proving to be a resilient bunch, one capable of scrapping their way into games at the end, but at some point they won’t be able to get away with falling into deep holes and only playing one or two very good quarters per game. With their handful of high-end weapons on offense and deep. potent defense, the 49ers may well represent that game. This would be an excellent time for the Falcons to find their footing and deliver their first truly complete effort of the season, but will they do so?
Here’s what you need to know about the matchup ahead.
Falcons - 49ers comparison
This is a total mismatch on paper. The 49ers have perhaps the league’s best defense, top-to-bottom, with DeMeco Ryans earning himself head coaching consideration for 2023 with a stellar, well-coached group. The best run defense in the league against a Falcons team that has yet to win a game primarily through the air would be grim enough, but the 49ers are also a very good pass defense capable of punishing this team’s mistakes.
Flipping the script, things are just a bit better for Atlanta. The 49ers also have a mediocre passing attack, which means they hopefully won’t be able to punish a so-so Falcons’ defense susceptible to the exact kind of big performances San Francisco can offer (i.e. from Deebo Samuel and George Kittle). Their ground game is dangerous, but Atlanta’s run defense is at least somewhat solid this year, albeit prone to major lapses.
Injury may help tip this one toward the Falcons, but this won’t be an easy game. What else is new for an Atlanta team that has yet to win or lose by more than a single score?
How the 49ers have changed
The Falcons saw the 49ers last year, and the changes haven’t been sweeping. Like Atlanta, San Francisco attempted a major quarterback change, but unlike the Falcons, they’re right back with the same starter they had in 2021 thanks to a truly unfortunate injury.
Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo is back under center owing to Trey Lance’s season-ending injury earlier this year, and he’s still the same paints-by-the-numbers-at-a-high-level option he always has been. They have a new starter at right guard in Spencer Burford, a 2022 fourth round pick, and Tevin Coleman is back in Kyle Shanahan’s clutches, plus several depth options added to the offense across the board via the draft. Otherwise, this offense is still reliant on big-time stars like Samuel and Kittle, and is even more reliant on Shanahan’s particular brand of schematic magic to score points.
The defense has basically zero new additions to the starting lineup, though 2022 second rounder Drake Jackson has two sacks on the young season and is well on his way to being an impact defender for the 49ers. This might be the deepest defensive front in football, as Everett Glaze wrote Wednesday, and they have plenty of talent in the back end as well. With Ryans looking like he’s capable of further elevating an already great defense, this is a damn scary group, and it has a case to be considered the NFL’s best.
The bottom line is that this team didn’t need major changes to be one of the NFC’s best, and they largely chose to stand pat. It’s paying off thus far, as they look like the favorites to take the NFC West with the Cardinals and Rams scuffling and the Seahawks fighting like hell but likely falling short owing to their talent gap.
What lies ahead
Last week did prove to be Atlanta’s toughest matchup of the year, as predicted. Atlanta fell behind 21-0 and struggled mightily to both move the ball and stop Tom Brady and Leonard Fournette, and the result was a narrow loss. Atlanta might have come back and won had they actually gotten the opportunity for a game-winning drive, but alas they were undone by officiating.
The problem for Atlanta is that this looks like more of the same. Jimmy G is not as good as Tom Brady, but Deebo Samuel is a more dangerous weapon than Leonard Fournette, the team has capable enough receivers, and George Kittle is certainly more dangerous than Cade Otton. The defense has injuries piling up that will make the matchup easier for Atlanta, but even San Francisco’s depth is good enough to give Atlanta fits, and they have a hyper-talented linebacker group and capable secondary. There just aren’t many huge holes on this team to prey on, and they’re exceptionally well-coached.
The Falcons might get Kyle Pitts back, which would help a great deal, but there are worrying trend lines for this offense in particular. The Falcons have zero passing touchdowns in the first half in five games, with Marcus Mariota completing just 53% of his first half passes versus 65% of his second half passes. The rushing attack is still pretty balanced throughout the game, but they average a yard per carry more in the second half, will be missing Patterson again this week, and could be without an injured Elijah Wilkinson. The team is basically useless in first down passing situations, which means San Francisco has plenty to gameplan for.
For all those doom and gloom notes, Atlanta keeps climbing back into games in the second half, and they clearly have both the talent and resilience to do it against San Francisco should they fall behind. The problem is that this defense is so good and so well-coached that the chances of a key run stuff or a Mariota mistake would seem to rise, which puts a premium on disciplined play and first half points the team has been unable to get. They’ll need to play their A game Sunday.
Defensively, stopping Deebo Samuel and George Kittle is job one, and if the team can take advantage of San Francisco’s shaky offensive line interior they ought to be able to keep the offense from running away early. The knack for timely turnovers and Grady Jarrett sacks in the second half is, if nothing else, an excellent failsafe.
In summary, this is another very tough matchup for a Falcons team that needs to play a full fourth quarters to win. If they can put it together in a way they haven’t quite done to this point, I like their chances. If not, well, at least we know they’ll likely be close at the end.