Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The San Francisco 49ers are 11-2 and on top of the entire NFC going into their Week 15 game against the 4-9 Atlanta Falcons, who are coming off of a 40-20 demolition of the Carolina Panthers. Atlanta has had a somewhat up-and-down season, though it has mostly been down for them as they are sitting at the bottom of the NFC South division and out of the playoff picture. It’s been three seasons since 49ers Head coach Kyle Shanahan helped lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl, but it is still seen as somewhat of a revenge game.
If nothing else, the 49ers can clinch a playoff spot, something they haven’t done since the 2013 season, with a win over the Falcons this week. So what needs to happen for the 49ers to make that happen and enter their final two division games at 12-2 and a game up on the Seahawks?
Survive the Injury Bug
This is something the 49ers have had to do all season long, so this isn’t a new story line. Against the New Orleans Saints, the team might have regained their top spot in the conference, but they lost center Weston Richburg for the season with a torn patellar tendon and cornerback Richard Sherman as well as edge rusher Dee Ford to hamstring issues for what looks like the remainder of the regular season. Fellow CB K’Waun Williams left the game due to a concussion and the 49ers have also placed wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on injured reserve, meaning his season is done as well.
Ben Garland should step in to replace Richburg as he’s done in spots throughout the season. There has been talk of moving guard Mike Person to center, but the past shows that Shanahan is comfortable with Garland, who will also be playing a somewhat revenge game against the Falcons, as he played for Shanahan there.
The CB positions will be filled by Emmanuel Moseley, who spent extensive parts of this season starting in place of the injured Ahkello Witherspoon and possibly D.J. Reed in the slot if Williams isn’t able to play. The team has been without Ford for most of the second half of the season, so that shouldn’t affect the defense all that much.
The Niners will also continue to deal with injuries to safety Jaquiski Tartt (fractured rib) and defensive lineman D.J. Jones (ankle) –who on Wednesday Shanahan announced could also be lost for the season. With all of these injuries on the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to not wonder if the team may find itself in another shootout.
Stopping Julio Jones and the Falcons’ Passing Attack
Falcons WR Jones is not putting up the type of eye popping numbers that he saw with Shanahan running the offense, but he is still one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Although his reception total of 69 for the season has him tied for seventeenth in the league, he ranks seventh with 1,016 yards, showing his big-play capabilities.
After watching Saints WR Michael Thomas go off to the tune of 11/134/1 last week, the 49ers defense needs to make sure Jones doesn’t give a similar performance. Luckily for the 49ers’ secondary, his running mate, second-year receiver Calvin Ridley, has been shut down for the season due to an abdominal injury. Removing the Falcons’ future WR1 from the equation leaves only Austin Hooper and Devonta Freeman as primary targets to compliment and draw defenders away from Jones.
The Falcons come into the game averaging 295 yards passing per game, and if the 49ers don’t want to be in another shootout, this time against the league’s third best passing attack, then their pass rush must get to Matt Ryan quicker than it did to Drew Brees, and force Ryan to make hurried throws. This will help keep Jones from getting open, and Ryan will have to look for short yardage dumps rather than the big plays he saw against the Panthers last week.
Regain their Vaunted Rushing Attack
Injuries to several offensive linemen, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, and nearly every running back the 49ers employ has caused their scary-good rushing attack slow down over the last few weeks. Or, at least that has been the storyline. The 49ers are still averaging 149 yards rushing a game, second in the league. The reason fans might see the 49ers go back to leaning on the run attack a little more is not a regression in the passing offense, but rather a need to keep the very injured defense off of the field.
Count RB Tevin Coleman as another 49er with an Atlanta Falcons past, playing there his entire career until this season. That doesn’t mean he is going to blow up this week, as he has cooled since his coming out game against the Carolina Panthers. It seems that he may have an off the record injury. Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert have shown that they are more than capable of grinding out a rushing attack and eating up the clock without Coleman operating at 100%.
If the offense can come out with a more balanced attack, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throwing thirty or fewer passes and the RB committee rushing the ball 30 to 35 times through the game, then the offense will be able to get the team up and allow the defense’s destructive pass rush to cause three-and-outs over and over again.
The Sum of the Equation
If the 49ers can follow the above blueprint, they should be able to possibly rest some key players at the tail end fourth quarter, something the team could really use after three weeks of extreme battle.
If they don’t follow this blueprint, fans should still expect a win, as Shanahan has shown to be an offensive genius, and the club from Santa Clara employs the baddest defense in the NFL, both of which should be hyped and ready to cause a blowout.
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