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49ers-Falcons preview: Team struggles, Devonta Freeman, Dan Quinn and more

We chatted with Dave Choate from The Falcoholic to get a better idea of his Atlanta Falcons. They are 6-2, but have several areas in question right now. You can read my responses to his questions here.

The San Francisco 49ers welcome the Atlanta Falcons to town on Sunday, with plenty of storylines and drama surrounding the game. The actual outcome is not in doubt for most people, but the emergence of Blaine Gabbert as the 49ers new starter is certainly intriguing. And the fact that the 49ers reportedly decided to make the switch this game due to questions about the Falcons defense adds a little something extra.

The Atlanta Falcons come to town with a 6-2 record, but having lost two of their last three games. They have played down to opponents more often than not, which leaves the door open for a close game this weekend. We took a few minutes to chat with Dave Choate from The Falcoholic to learn more about his team. I answered some of his questions here.

Niners Nation: Even when the team was undefeated, there seemed to be some questions about them, considering the close wins. But what happened against Tennessee and Tampa Bay to result in a close road win and then a close road loss?

The Falcoholic: Honestly, the Falcons are just shooting themselves in the foot (feet?) right now. They've turned the ball over repeatedly thanks to bad throws from Matt Ryan, bad fumbles, botched handoffs, miscommunications that result in fumbles, and multiple terrible snaps that have directly resulted in turnovers. It's not an exaggeration to say they've left multiple touchdowns on the field, especially because many of those turnovers have come in the red zone.

I keep telling myself that this can't possibly continue, and the Falcons do have a competent defense and strong ground to lean on while they get the passing game and turnovers sorted out. To me, it's about cleaning up the easy mistakes and getting Ryan more comfortable in this scheme, and this should be a playoff team.

NN: Tell us about Devonta Freeman, and the kind of running back he is (besides an awesome fantasy back!).

TF: What really stands out with Freeman is his vision and effort. He's got good but not spectacular speed, he's strong but not a true bruiser, and he came out of college with a reputation as a well-rounded back who can do a little bit of everything. He's wound up doing a lot, and it has everything to do with his ability to find the hole, hit it, and fight for extra yardage. The line is opening up holes for him, and he's got the ability to get to them quickly and power through, meaning a three or four yard pickup for a lesser back ends up being a seven or eight yard gain for him, and it has been beautiful to watch.

I think players like Todd Gurley stand out more (and are arguably better) because of their elite physical talent, but Freeman is a perfect fit for this offense. Sadly, right now he's probably the third or fourth best receiver on this team, as well.

NN: What has Dan Quinn brought to the table that has improved this team over the Mike Smith era?

TF: It's really everything. Players like the simplicity of his scheme, he's a motivational guy, and he has a defensive acumen that Mike Smith and Mike Nolan just seemed to lose toward the end of their respective tenures in Atlanta. Quinn has a good eye for talent, and he's taken last year's fifth round pick at cornerback and transformed him into an above average starting free agency in very little time. You guys will likely see Ricardo Allen making a big tackle or two out there Sunday.

Quinn's also had final control over the roster and a lot of say when it came to constructing it, and I think he's done a nice job of importing players who fit his scheme. Guys like Adrian Clayborn and Jalen Collins have been very good in their limited opportunities, and putting Kyle Shanahan at the head of the offense and letting him hand-pick his offensive line has improved the ground game by leaps and bounds. It's not any one thing, and some of it may just be the bounce that comes with replacing a guy whose message had grown stale.

He's got a long ways to go, both because this roster has obvious holes and he hasn't figured out how to get his players to iron out their issues with turnovers, but I'm bullish on Quinn's future here in Atlanta.

NN: There were the comments that the 49ers waited to bench Kap so that Gabbert could face a not so good Falcons defense. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the defense?

TF: It's interesting, because I think this defense has a couple of major weaknesses that Kaepernick would be better equipped to exploit. Chiefly, the Falcons struggled to rush the passer, which has been a persistent problem since John Abraham left Atlanta post-2012, and the addition of promising rusher Vic Beasley has not fixed that just yet. They can hit the quarterback, they can put on a little pressure, and they can force a QB out of his comfort zone, but a guy like Kaepernick has the escape ability to make life more difficult for Atlanta.

The Falcons also don't have great linebackers, so throws over the middle to secondary options (particularly to tight ends) can be problematic for Atlanta to defend. They really lack speed and struggle when they're asked to pursuit, too, so the more speedy guys you can get matched up against the likes of Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant, the better you'll be doing.

The run defense in Atlanta is terrific, especially when the Falcons roll out a jumbo line that features Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Kroy Biermann in particular. The cornerbacks are excellent, and generally speaking the pass defense is prone to the occasional big play but has done a nice job of holding opposing quarterbacks in check. It's certainly a better matchup for Gabbert than St. Louis, but Atlanta's got plenty to recommend them.

NN: What do you expect from this game, and the rest of your season?

TF: I do expect Atlanta to win. After the last three or four weeks, especially, I hate to come into any game feeling as confident as I do about this one, but the Falcons match up pretty well, they're reasonably healthy, and the 49ers look so banged up and messed up right now that it'd take a pretty poor performance from Atlanta for San Francisco to win. Any given Sunday, though, and a tiny part of me is nervous that Blaine Gabbert and Kendall Gaskins are going to find something deep within themselves.

The season, I think, will be a wildcard playoff berth, a 10-6 record or so, and an early playoff exit. This team simply isn't good enough just yet to make a Super Bowl run unless they've got a massive improvement in them, but for year one under a new head coach, I'd be pretty happy with that.