Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
For the 49ers, the much-talked-about gauntlet is over and they return home to take on the Atlanta Falcons. In many ways, this is a must-win game for the 49ers, against a sub .500 team and with a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a victory.
Here are some matchups to watch versus the Falcons:
The 49ers vs. Complacency:
The 49ers made just completed the toughest three game stretch in modern NFL history; a stretch that kept them away from Santa Clara since Thanksgiving after spending a week in Bradenton Florida. After going 2-1 in the three game stretch that concluded with a last second victory in New Orleans, the Niners might be in for an Admiral Ackbar special against the 4-9 Falcons.
The Niners have had some slow starts this season, against the Steelers and Cardinals, were they let inferior teams hang in the game and make things more interesting than need be. For San Francisco, there is still much work to be done and they need to come out with both feet on the gas and put his one away early.
Julio Jones vs. Not Richard Sherman:
The 49ers will be without Richard Sherman for perhaps the remainder of the regular season after the cornerback suffered a hamstring injury against the Saints; Backup Emmanuel Moseley will be filling in while Sherman is out. Moseley has started eight games this season, filling in for Ahkello Witherspoon while he was out, in those eight games Moseley played like a high-level starter. On Sunday, Moseley and Witherspoon will be tasked with covering Julio Jones, who is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL and a physical mismatch for just about any cornerback in the league.
The 49ers’ cornerbacks don’t travel (meaning they only play one side of the field), so both Witherspoon and Moseley figure to see time against Julio Jones. Sherman’s leadership has been invaluable for the defense and he will be on the sideline ready to provide input in between drives, but for the first time this season he won’t be out there to provide his leadership from play to play. What affect will that have on the defense and specifically the communication among the defensive backs?
The 49ers’ wide receivers vs. the Falcons’ cornerbacks:
The Falcons are also headed into Sunday down a starting cornerback, having placed Desmond Trufant on injured reserve with a broken arm. Isaiah Oliver, a second-round choice in 2018 from the University of Colorado and college teammate of 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, will take over for Trufant on Sunday [ed. note: Oliver is listed as questionable]. Kendall Sheffield will be the cornerback opposite Oliver against the Niners; Sheffield is a rookie who battled his way into the starting lineup replacing Oliver earlier in the season.
The Falcons’ pass defense ranks in the bottom third of the NFL in yards per game (twenty-fourth), average yards per attempt (twenty-sixth) and touchdown passes (twenty-third). Coming off their most prolific passing performance of the season against the Saints, the 49ers could also find success through the air against the Falcons.
The 49ers’ defensive line vs. the Falcons’ offensive line:
The defensive line of the 49ers could look dramatically different against the Falcons. D.J. Jones was placed on injured reserve, and Dee Ford is out for the remainder of the regular season; the defensive line is already missing Jullian Taylor and Ronald Blair. The Niners also have Kentavius Street, who will be activated in time for Sunday’s game, but he is a complete unknown at this point. Street, a fourth-round draft choice in 2018, has yet to suit up for a regular season game. With Jones out, Solomon Thomas figures to see increased snaps at defensive tackle, and that bears watching because Thomas struggles to anchor against the run and gets moved quite often in the run game.
The Atlanta offensive line has struggled a bit this season, giving up 41 sacks on the season, which ranks twenty-fourth in the league and in the run game their 3.7 yards per carry is thirtieth in the league. However, the Falcons got right guard Chris Lindstrom back last week against Carolina after missing the previous eleven weeks with a broken foot, and they responded with 159 yards on the ground.
Ben Garland vs. Grady Jarrett:
Ben Garland takes over at center for Weston Richburg, who was placed on injured reserve this week. Garland filled in admirably for Richburg last week and surrendered just one quarterback pressure on 25 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
This week Garland will have his hands full against Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Jarrett is among the better defensive tackles in the league and Pro Football Focus has him graded at 89.3, which is just on the cusp of elite according to their scale.
A lot is asked of the center in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and if Garland struggles it could spell problems for the 49ers’ offense in both the run and pass game.
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