Week 6 is here, and the Atlanta Falcons saw their winning streak end against the NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a truly atrocious roughing the passer call eliminated an opportunity for a potential game-winning drive. Atlanta now returns home to face one of the NFC’s top contenders in the San Francisco 49ers, and the Falcons are currently 4-point underdogs against the 49ers according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the 49ers, so I’ve enlisted the help of a San Francisco expert: Ty Austin. Ty is a writer over at Niners Nation, SB Nation’s site covering all things 49ers.
I brought five questions to Ty to try to get a better read on how the 49ers have looked over the first quarter of the season, including an update on San Francisco’s recent run of injuries and the status of the offense under Jimmy Garoppolo. Read on for Ty’s answers.
Q1. The 49ers are 3-2 and sitting atop the NFC West, but appear to be quite banged up based on the injury report this week. In total, eight players did not participate in practice Wednesday, including a number of starters: Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam, Javon Kinlaw, and Trent Williams. It was also announced that CB Emmanuel Moseley will be out for the rest of the year. How high is your level of concern for the defense, in particular, with so many good players sidelined? Is there a chance for any of the injured players to play on Sunday?
Ty Austin: Given the 49ers and, by extension, my own experience dealing with injured 49ers, this probably rates about a 6 out of 10 on the Concern-o-Meter. When this defense faced Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau last year the #2 corner was Dontae Johnson, an eight year vet that’ll probably be best remembered as an answer to the trivia question, “What player spent over 99% of his career on the San Francisco practice squad?”
Yes, it’s likely three-fourths of the starting D-line, including Nick Bosa, will not suit up for this one. Yes, Jimmie Ward will miss the game with a broken hand. And, yes, Emmanuel Moseley is done for the year. But, this unit is just too deep and too well coached to worry about.
DeMeco Ryans has schemed far less talent to victory and I would expect nothing less this week. Now, if this Sunday’s game were against the Kansas City Chiefs, who’ll come to Levi’s the following Sunday, I’d be much more worried about whether Charles Omenihu (and his 18 QB pressures) or the rookie Drake Jackson can fill the void of Bosa. Same goes for the possibility of Ambry Thomas stepping into Moseley’s role as opposed to Jason Verrett, who’s on the verge of a return from his own ACL tear.
I do think the looming matchup with Mahomes might lead to some extra caution when facing Mariota, and Niners fans willingly accept that reasoning. No offense, of course.
Q2. Speaking of the defense, San Francisco is #1 in the league in both points allowed and total yardage allowed. They’re also, notably, the top run defense in the NFL in both yardage and yards per carry. With Atlanta’s offense relying almost entirely on the ground game, how do you feel about that particular matchup? Do any of the Falcons weapons in the passing game present potential mismatches with the 49ers secondary?
Ty: After an embarrassing pre-season finale against the Houston Texans and Dameon Pierce, fans might’ve experienced some PTSD from the beginning of last season when the D looked inept at slowing down the run game. However, that all changed when Arik Armstead moved inside, and it’s continued even in his absence this season.
As my fellow Niners Nation writer Jordan Elliot wrote here (https://www.ninersnation.com/2022/10/11/23398155/49ers-top-rushing-defense), it’s really been a three level effort that’s held teams to a league low 71.4 yard per game and 3.0 yards per carry. This is what happens when you combine the emergence of Talanoa Hufanga as one of the game’s most quick trigger safeties, the signing of Mooney Ward and his willingness to crash down on runs, and the contribution of role players in the trenches, like Kevin Givens and Hassan Ridgeway, in place of missing starters Armstead and Javon Kinlaw.
When I look at the weapons in the Falcons secondary, I wonder who isn’t Kyle Pitts and Drake London a matchup nightmare for? Then I remember that Fred Warner patrols the middle of the field. He’s gone one-on-one with Cooper Kupp and locked down any TE you could throw at him. However, do I think that one of these skyscrapers disguised as pass catchers could get matched up against whoever ends up replacing Emmanuel Moseley? Sure, and that could absolutely lead to disastrous results, but with Warner commanding his troops and filling passing lanes, anything is possible.
Q3. While the defense has dominated, the 49ers offense has been fairly mediocre thus far—outside of an absolute demolishing of the Panthers last week. Obviously, Trey Lance was lost for the season and Jimmy Garoppolo has once again taken over at quarterback. How has Garoppolo fared thus far, and what has been the biggest factor holding back the offense in your opinion?
Ty: This one’s pretty simple. Garoppolo has looked better at quarterback for the NIners in the last two than maybe any two games since he’s been wearing scarlet and gold. However, Garoppolo’s also the reason the offense didn’t quite look right to start the season.
To be fair, it’s completely understandable. He missed the entire off-season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and sat out all of training camp expecting to get traded. He definitely knows this offense and most of its players well, but there has certainly been some rust to knock off and adjustments to make.
The Broncos game, in which Trent Williams went out, represented a nadir for the Shanahan-Garoppolo duo, but they’ve seemingly bounced back. Jimmy G hasn’t thrown a pick in back-to-back games, noteworthy for a guy who’s never gone three in a row without one, and his INT percentage is at an all time low of 0.9%.
The coaching staff has also trusted him to throw more in the face of stiff run D. He’s had more pass attempts than the team had rushes in their last two wins, albeit mostly quick, short passes that allow for YAC, which makes sense when you consider Jimmy’s strengths and that two of the Niners top backs are injured. Maybe there’s more trust in Garoppolo, maybe the game plan needed to zag, maybe it’s a little of both, I don’t know, but right now it’s working.
Q4. San Francisco’s passing game has struggled, but the rushing attack has been a top-10 unit according to most metrics even without starting RB Elijah Mitchell. How important is it for the 49ers to establish the run against the Falcons on Sunday? Can this team win by throwing the ball, if necessary?
Ty: Well, refer to the end of my last answer for some insight on this and allow me to continue forward. Jeff Wilson Jr. and recently signed Tevin Coleman looked like quite the duo against the Panthers, and Wilson has looked more explosive each week. But those weren’t the guys everyone expected to be leading the way come Week 5. That alone called for more passing to help offset the talent disparity.
The Shanahan offense builds off the run in every way and I can’t imagine a world they would ever toss it aside completely, but also getting the ball in Deebo Samuel’s hands usually proves to be an effective way of doing business. Against the Rams, he tallied 101 yards of YAC, which was over a third of Jimmy’s passing total. Not bad. As much as I’d expect a heavy dose of ground game, I believe the Niners could once again lean on WR tunnel screens and quick slants on Sunday. How better to neutralize someone like Grady Jarret’s pressure? Utilize Jimmy G’s ability to get the ball out fast to the tune of a 2.2 second average.
Q5. This seems like a very tough matchup for the Falcons considering the 49ers particular strengths on defense, but Atlanta has kept every game within a score even against superior opponents. How do you see this game playing out, and do you have a score prediction for Sunday?
Ty: The Falcons seem like a feisty matchup for any team right now, but, even with the injuries and the almost inevitable Jimmy G interception, I just don’t see the Niners losing this one. Their D-line can bring waves of dudes to harass the QB, Fred Warner’s having another All-Pro season, and the secondary has never looked better equipped to weather a storm. Meanwhile, the offense has started to put the pieces back together around a confident and more precise Jimmy G.
As for a score prediction, I’ll weigh than the Niners are allowing roughly 12 points a game against last two week’s offensive output and say: 49ers 27 Falcons 17
Many thanks to Ty Austin for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a 49ers perspective on things, follow Niners Nation at @NinersNation.
If you’d like to see my answers to Tyler’s questions, you can find that story right here.