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Falcons - 49ers recap: Red helmets, blue 49ers, crystal clear improvement

Atlanta’s statement win of the 2022 season isn’t the culmination of everything the team has been building, but it’s the most important mile marker yet.

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San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Falcons are who they thought they were. Atlanta was blasted by executives within their own conference as the worst roster in football, projected by USA Today and other outlets as a team unlikely to win more than a couple of games, and regularly dismissed as a bad football team unlikely to do much of anything in yet another rebuilding season. The bulk of Falcons fans, while I would say fairly optimistic as a whole, clearly felt this team had weaknesses that would make the sledding tough at times in 2022.

The Falcons never seemed to believe any of that. Most players were careful to say they didn’t have Super Bowl aspirations, but in the building this was an optimistic team eager to prove the legions of doubters both real and imagined wrong, as a pugnacious Arthur Smith frequently reminded us. The Atlanta Falcons were building something, though, and they were clearly itching to show us all what it was, low expectations or talk of a transition year be damned.

It’s just six games, so there’s a small lifetime ahead of potential surprises, and perhaps even disappointments. We’ve still seen enough from this 3-3 Falcons team to know they are emphatically not the same old Atlanta squad of yesteryear, the ones who couldn’t handle contenders and frittered away leads and couldn’t get a major stop or a tough yard when they needed it. This version of the Atlanta Falcons is a good, tough, balanced football team, and they made that crystal clear against the 49ers.

This team ran, if not superlatively then certainly effectively, and they did it all game long. This team finally figured out how to pass sparingly at an incredibly effective level, with Marcus Mariota delivering his ideal game. This team clamped down early, survived San Francisco’s volleys, and put on a defensive clinic throughout the second half. This team got fortunate, as every team must occasionally, but didn’t need that fortune to decide the game for them. This team is taking it week by week, refusing to look past anyone or relax for a moment, and it’s paying off over and over again. They’re a 3-3 team remarkably close to better results, and they’re a 3-3 team that looks good in a division that increasingly looks dismal. These Falcons are, in a nutshell, a quality football team, and that was apparent to them long before it was apparent to anyone else.

With a pivotal offseason looming where the team will have the ability to get a lot better pretty quickly, optimism is permeating the fanbase and the worst-case predictions NFC executives and national outlets were slinging around seem increasingly foolish. There are holes in this roster and questions to be asked about what happens when this team’s plans meet with unfortunate circumstances—what happens when those bombs to open receivers fall into hands? what happens when you have to throw it 20-plus times per game?—but the floor of this season is higher and sturdier than anticipated. Right now, at 3-3 and with an ability to be in the lead or at least in it at the end of games with just about anybody, it’s enough that Atlanta is shaping up to be exactly the kind of quality team they told us they’d be.

Here’s the full recap.

The Good

  • Atlanta needed to start fast, and they did. Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone had this offense cooking early, with Marcus Mariota finding easy chunk yardage to Olamide Zaccheaus and Kyle Pitts while Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley kept things churning forward on the ground. It was a reminder that this team is very capable of putting even a great defense (albeit a banged up one) back on their heels if everything’s clicking, and that the troubles of this team one week won’t necessarily become trouble spots that plague them all season.
  • Marcus Mariota’s legs make him hard to stop, and when he’s also an effective passer, they’re downright lethal. He started the game off perfect on his first six throws to key a scoring drive, but he also showed he’s incredibly dangerous as a runner, picking up big yardage and multiple first downs just by tucking and running. He also scored a touchdown where he got the corner and simply outran San Francisco’s defense,

It was the best game of the year for Mariota by far. There are limitations here, but he’s also fitting snugly into a Falcons offense that wants to run first and pass as efficiently as possible, and with just one miss on the day and a pair of touchdowns, Mariota was everything this offense needed him to be and even more. If the ground game can continue to thrive and the Falcons can continue to give him the chance to be an efficient passer and choose when to introduce chaos via a scramble, Mariota may wind up stringing together some terrific games.

  • MyCole Pruitt looked good all summer, so it was somewhat of a mystery that he didn’t make the roster, wound up on the practice squad, and hadn’t been able to find his way to much playing time. That changed on Sunday, as Pruitt got in the game, blocked well, and capped off the opening drive with a nice jumping touchdown grab. Given what he brings to the table, he ought to be TE3 for this team.
  • Mariota led the way in terms of effectiveness running the ball, but Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley consistently kept things moving forward. The duo combined for 31 carries and 110 yards on the day, turning nothing into a yard or two and turning a yard into a few to help Atlanta grind the clock to a fine powder and set the team up for manageable third downs, which helped the team convert on 9 of 14 third downs on the day. The Falcons want to run the ball early, often and effectively, and to their credit they’ve been able to do so with their duo of young physical backs, even with Damien Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson out.
  • Of course, the offensive line plays a major role there. Atlanta has been in rough shape along the line for multiple season now, but this year they’ve strung together multiple impressive performances in terms of run blocking and pass protection. This effort was not without its blips—Mariota got crushed once, nearly crushed a couple of other times, and the line didn’t give Allgeier and Huntley a ton of room to work with—but they were at worst decent and often quite good at keep this offense humming. Kudos to the group.
  • The defense isn’t great yet, but they are still a lot of fun and they take advantage of their opportunities. In this one, Troy Andersen and Rashaan Evans hit Jeff Wilson on the 49ers’ second drive, helping force a fumble that A.J. Terrell picked up and almost took to the house before he fumbled it going over the pylon and Jaylinn Hawkins fell on it for the score. It was a wild, absurd play, one that could’ve fallen short of the end zone multiple times if not for heads-up decisions.

Over and over again in this one, Atlanta came up with the stop they needed, when they needed it, and nearly every time San Francisco made a significant mistake, the Falcons punished them. That’s a recipe for success.

  • Kudos to Troy Andersen, who did quite well in his first NFL start, even if he had some screen-related mishaps along the way. Andersen came up with a critical tackle on a punt return, combined with Rashaan Evans to help force a fumble, and came up with several big tackles. The Falcons will want to get Andersen more involved going forward, and have a good problem with Walker, Evans, and Andersen all capable of playing a lot and playing pretty well.
  • Arnold Ebiketie hit Jimmy Garoppolo twice in this one, and his rookie season has been a story of the promising pass rusher getting 95% of the way there repeatedly without quite getting the sack, or the Jonathan Babineaux Special. Those will come, though, and Ebiketie continues to look as advertised.
  • Isaiah Oliver just got back, but he looked like the time to recuperate did him good. At the end of the second quarter, Oliver had a leaping grab on Jimmy Garoppolo’s sideline heave and intercepted it, managing a nice return that ended the half with an Atlanta lead. It was good to see him back in action and playing well, and hopefully the injury that ended his night was a minor one.
  • Jaylinn Hawkins had two big plays in this one, picking up A.J. Terrell’s fumbled would-be score off the fumble scoop and a nice grab on a ball Darren Hall tipped to pick off Garoppolo. Those are the kinds of big plays, particularly the latter, that Hawkins is very capable of making on a regular basis. Hopefully he’ll have many more to come.
  • Speaking of Hall, even though he picked up a flag on one play, he had a huge play-saving deflection of a Jimmy G shot to Aiyuk and then tipped the ball on the very next play so Hawkins could pick it off. Atlanta’s fortunate to have a reserve cornerback who can step in and make those kinds of plays.
  • Avery Williams is really fun to watch as a returner. On the opening kickoff he got back to the 25 with some effective dodging, and on the first 49ers punt of the day he put one defender in a blender and spun past another to give himself a solid return and set the team up with good field position. Later on, he set the Falcons up well by bringing it from the Atlanta six to the 35 on a 29 yard punt return that will help him remain as the league’s most productive punt returner. He’s looking as good as advertised in year two.
  • KhaDarel Hodge had a tremendous, heads-up play on the fourth quarter punt from the Falcons, catching it off the hop at the San Francisco 1 to make their drive that much more difficult. Of course, that was enabled by a beautiful punt from Bradley Pinion, as Atlanta special teams continues to be an asset.
  • Kyle Pitts, touchdown scorer, what a marvel. It was great to see Pitts get his second NFL touchdown and first of his career in the U.S.—his last one came in London against the Jets—and on a nice pass and grab in the third quarter. Yeah, he only had 19 yards, but it was a big grab and there will be jaw-dropping days ahead for the second-year tight end.

The Ugly

  • Flags continue to be a problem for this team. Kyle Pitts was drawn offsides on Atlanta’s second drive to back them up, and then Drew Dalman got hit with a block in the back penalty (albeit a borderline one) that basically killed the drive. Later, Grady Jarrett finished off the third quarter with an encroachment call the 49ers were working hard for to give them a critical first down. Atlanta’s mistakes and lack of discipline have been holding them back from being as good as they can be, and that continued Sunday.
  • The defense had a brilliant first drive and got the fumble return for a score, so they started off just as hot as you can. From there, the wheels came off quickly and decisively, as the 49ers started using screens and short passes to take advantage of soft spots in Atlanta’s defense, their inability to get off of blocks, and their problems with tackling. The end result was two straight easy scoring drives for the 49ers to tie the game up. Atlanta did excellent work the rest of the way, but teams sort of know how to best attack this defense, and they were a couple of bad drops on Jimmy G deep balls away from having a much bigger problem on their hands than they ultimately dealt with.

Considering it didn’t even come close to costing them the game, perhaps this sounds like a gripe not worth making. Because Atlanta’s ability to slow down the kinds of things that worked for the 49ers and almost worked for them on Sunday is going to matter as soon as this coming week against the Bengals, and because it will likely be a focal point for a defense that otherwise did terrific work this week, it’s worth mentioning here.

  • The one blemish of the day for Atlanta’s special teams? The very long Ray-Ray McCloud return, enabled by some missed tackles and finally ended by Troy Andersen. As slip-ups go, it didn’t prove to be a fatal one, but it was unusual to see any sort of miscue from a very reliable special teams group.

The Recap

Game MVP

It’s Marcus Mariota. The veteran quarterback had five uneven efforts in five games to start the season, but in this one he put it all together and had easily his most efficient performance as a passer and was a force as a runner, keying the offense all day in an extremely impressive afternoon. If he has more games like this in front of him, the Falcons are going to be dangerous all year, and Mariota is going to hold on to that starting job for a long while yet.

One Takeaway

Again, maybe this won’t be the year the Falcons put it all together, but they’re already a dangerous, fun football team here in 2022. They’re not going to be much fun for any opponent left on their schedule the rest of the way, and we’re going to enjoy watching them this year.

Next Week

The Cincinnati Bengals, who have a terrific offense and capable enough defense, but just struggled mightily against the Saints and have been inconsistent all year. It’s another winnable game if these Falcons show up.

Final Word