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5 things we learned: Week 6 vs. 49ers

Who are these underdog Falcons that dismantled the 49ers in decisive fashion?

San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The season is quickly approaching its halfway point and we are still learning about this rag tag team of ruffians. Few anticipated Atlanta’s current success and almost shocking level of quality play. Atlanta didn’t just narrowly beat the odds-favorite San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons beat its doors off and held tight to its lead despite a slew of ongoing injuries.

Former Falcons whiz kid Kyle Shanahan had no answers and left Atlanta on the wrong end of a 28-14 score. The gruff Arthur Smith has turned a roster filled mostly with subpar players into a (for now) contender.

It is pretty cool.

Marcus Mariota is not ready to get benched

In the two weeks preceding Sunday’s big win, Mariota completed a combined 47.7% of his passes with 1 TD, 1 pick, took 6 sacks and fumbled twice. It was a bad stretch. Even Arthur Smith was asked about Desmond Ridder’s timeline.

Mariota answered. While partially thanks to Smith’s more limited passing game plan, Sunday was what you wanted to see from Mariota. The passer went 13 for 14 with 2 touchdowns and rushed 6 times for 50 yards and another touchdown. Three scores in 20 touches is the sort of effectiveness you absolutely love to see.

Ridder time has been delayed indefinitely. Mariota is the starter.

The Falcons are undefeated (against the spread)

Outside of Vegas, the Falcons are 3-3. While good enough to be at (or near) the top of the NFC South, more impressive is that Atlanta is undefeated against the spread. That could mean that bettors aren’t big believers in the Falcons and it has lost them a lot of money. It also means the Falcons have not been blown out, and even in losses, overperformed expectations.

It doesn’t feel as good as real wins but it is notable. Bubbling over the baseline is progress for a team that has in recent years failed to hit it.

The Falcons lead the league in rush percentage

After Sunday, the Falcons moved ahead of the Chicago Bears for the league lead in rush percentage and second in overall rushes to the Philadelphia Eagles. It is far more interesting than a simple statistic or two. More than just Smith wanting to run the ball (after all, all coaches say they want to run the ball). The league has been transitioning for years to emphasize the passing game. Edge rushers have traded size for speed. Linebackers better have sideline-to-sideline speed. Your chunky tackles have been replaced by lighter, faster interior linemen. And Falcons runners have been bullying these defenders built to slow down the league’s newest offenses.

Smith is content doing the opposite, zigging while the NFL zags. He still needs to show it can keep pace with the heavy passing offenses. Right now, though, it is finding success.

Arthur Smith and Dean Pees outcoached Kyle Shanahan and DeMeco Ryans

Perhaps overlooked from Sunday’s win was the Falcons outcoached one of the league’s top coaching staffs. Shanahan has of course been thought of as one of the league’s best offensive minds since his time with Falcons. The former 49ers linebacker Ryans has been mentioned among head coaching candidates. The staff is very well regarded, and despite dealing with a significant number of injuries, failed to establish much of anything. Even at its healthy positions.

In fact, Atlanta’s improvement this season is based (in my view) almost entirely on coaching. Both the offensive and defensive lines were weak spots heading into the offseason and neither saw any serious upgrades. Now both are significantly improved from 2021. The secondary is a strength. Atlanta has three backs who can out-muscle defenders.

Give Smith and Pees their dues for this turnaround and outmatching some of the league’s best.

League-wide respect is still developing

The first thing we learned is the Falcons have beat their bettor-imposed odds every week. Is part of the problem the Falcons aren’t respected around the league? The answer is a resounding yes. The Falcons easily beat the 49ers but that was injuries. The Falcons looked close to beating the Buccaneers but didn’t (reasoning be damned). Falcons are just a few plays from 5-1 but will need to keep up the effort and success to see the respect develop.

In the meantime, the Falcons look ready to outperform everyone’s 2022 predictions for Atlanta. Including the Falcoholic’s own typically optimistic predictions where I had Atlanta slotted for six wins.