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A Tale of Two Pities

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Atlanta and San Francisco are both struggling despite high expectations. What does the comparison tell us?

San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Two offensive-minded teams running Cover-3 defenses, expected to do well this year.

Two injury-ridden squads with 1-4 records and lots of frustrated fans.

San Francisco and Atlanta.

Inspired by a comment from user Bay Area Blessed, let's look into the similarities and differences between the 49ers and Falcons. (Spoiler: I’d rather be SF than Atlanta.) Here’s what BAB said about the Falcons comparison:

they are 1-4, just like us. And it’s for pretty much the same reason – injuries. That and the defense sucks. (because of said injuries) Ryan can put up 30 pts. each game (sound familiar?)…but if the defense can’t stop anybody it doesn’t matter....

There’s no doubt that both teams are big disappointments, in large part due to injuries. For Atlanta, offensive guard Andy Levitre is out for the year, along with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Middle linebacker Deion Jones is on IR with a vague foot injury, marked for return but not before November 18th at the earliest — and his absence has caused problems equivalent to Reuben Foster’s, at the start of this season for San Francisco. His replacement, Duke Riley, is rated 77th of 82 qualifying LB’s by PFF.

Here are some similarities and differences between the competing disappointments of these two teams.

Similarities

1. Kyle Shanahan

Fundamentally, these are both offenses that Kyle Shanahan built, even if work is only half-done in San Francisco, and Atlanta’s offense is diverging under the guidance of Steve Sarkisian, who is rebuilding his career after getting fired from the USC head coach job for alcoholism.

Many of the same skill players are there, such as QB Matt Ryan, WR1 Julio Jones, WR2 Mohammed Sanu, RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, TE Austin Hooper (plus Logan Paulsen from Shanny’s first Niners team!). But notably, the Falcons let the NFL’s second-best pass receiving fullback — Patrick DiMarco — walk after Shanahan left.

Their current FB Ricky Ortiz has (checks notes) zero receptions on zero targets, for a grand total of zero yards. Meanwhile, FB Kyle Juszczyk has 197 yards receiving so far this year, more than Larry Fitzgerald, Randall Cobb, Taylor Gabriel, Christian McCaffrey, Jordan Reed — or Pierre Garçon.

2. Injuries

I’ve already mentioned Atlanta’s injuries, and anyone reading this is far too familiar with the Niners’ problems. The real worry is combining No. 1 and No. 2 — is there something about Shanahan’s offense that increases the odds of injuries? Nothing leaps out at me, but it’s a question worth asking.

Differences

1. The offensive line

Atlanta’s line was great under Shanahan, cemented by the high-priced free agent acquisition of center Alex Mack, whose mobility really made Shanahan’s scheme sing. That line has been neglected since he left and has really fallen apart, giving up six sacks and 13 QB hits in the Pittsburgh game alone. Mack is getting old, Levitre’s out for the season, and only Jake Matthews has been playing well (out of five starters). Do you know who’s starting at right guard for Atlanta this year? Brandon Fusco, the barely passable Niner guard from last year. ‘Nuff said.

Meanwhile, PFF ranks the Niners’ offensive front line 5th in the NFL. Drafting tackle Mike McGlinchey and signing free agent center Weston Richburg, Jr. has cemented a great line, paving the way for Shanahan’s run heavy + play action pass scheme to be devastating when everyone heals up next year.

2. Skill players

The Falcons are loaded, with Matty Ice, Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and rookie WR Calvin Ridley (the offensive player of the month for September). San Francisco has … a great fullback? Second-year men George Kittle and Matt Breida are on track to eventually become Pro Bowlers, and Marquise Goodwin flashed last year (but not this season, so far). Otherwise, the Niners have a bunch of average to above average skill players, but no real stars.

Atlanta has a much stronger offense, right now. But given their roster and healthy QB, they damn well better.

3. Head coach

Atlanta has a defensive minded head coach, and a terrible defense sometimes bailed out by a strong offense. San Francisco has a generally good defense with huge lapses in its second year, and an overachieving offense masterminded by a great coach, but sputtering due to spotty talent. The Niners are a couple of years away, but I like the trend.

Overall

Atlanta is a talented, directionless team slowly drifting into mediocrity. San Francisco is a young, rebuilding team with great leadership at GM and offensive coordinator/coach, a team on the way up.

They’re passing each other going in different directions, but I see this as a lot more like “A Star is Born” than any direct parallel.