San Francisco just faced the toughest stretch that any team has had to face this late in the season in the Super Bowl era, facing off against three-straight opponents who had a winning percentage of at least 0.800. Considering two of those matchups were on the road and had a playoff-esque vibe, how do the 49ers prepare for the 4-9 Falcons at home?
The last time the 49ers faced off against a team with a losing record, they found themselves down 16-0 in the first half vs. — Cardinals at home. Given the injury situation, the 49ers can’t afford to put themselves in that deep of a hole against the Falcons, because they may not be able to climb out of it.
With the Seahawks losing last week to the Rams, this 49ers’ game has less importance, because San Francisco can still lose one of the next two games, as long as they win Week 17 in Seattle and still clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
In order to avoid falling prey to the trap game, the 49ers will need to win these three matchups, and it’s something fans should keep their eyes on.
1. Falcons’ interior defensive line vs. 49ers’ C Ben Garland
One of the biggest setbacks for the 49ers’ offensive line was the injury to center Weston Richburg, who had been one of the most consistent blockers along the San Francisco’s front. Richburg was replaced by backup Ben Garland, who stepped in and was solid against the Saints, giving up only one pressure in 36 snaps.
Falcons’ best defenders are their two interior linemen, Grady Jarrett and Adrian Clayborn, who have combined for 77 pressures and ten sacks on the season and will look to disrupt the 49ers’ offense from the inside. Jarrett also leads the Falcons with 32 run stops, per Pro Football Focus, so he’s solid in the run game as well.
Garland will have his hands full but will need to play as he did vs. Saints, not like he did vs. Seahawks for the 49ers’ offense to be able to control this game.
In #Falcons-#49ers, the matchup between ATL's IDL (Jarrett/Clayborn) vs. Ben Garland will be one to watch.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 14, 2019
Jarrett: 33 pressures and six sacks
Clayborn: 44 pressures and four sacks
They face off against backup Ben Garland who only gave up 1 pressure in 36 snaps last week. pic.twitter.com/FpLHVqelvi
2. Falcons’ wide receivers vs. 49ers’ injured secondary
The price that the 49ers had to pay for winning a close game in New Orleans was steep, as they will be without outside corner Richard Sherman (hamstring) and nickel corner K’Waun Williams (concussion). Safety Jaquiski Tartt was also ruled out for Sunday, still dealing with the injury his ribs.
That likely means that corners Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley will start on the outside, with second-year corner D.J. Reed playing in the slot. Safety Marcell Harris will continue to step in for Tartt, with Tarvarius Moore backing him up.
Atlanta lost wideout Calvin Ridley for the season and traded away Mohamed Sanu in the middle of the season, but still feature a receiving corps that includes Julio Jones, Russell Gage, and Justin Hardy.
The Falcons are coming off of a game vs. Panthers were quarterback Matt Ryan threw for an uber-efficient 313 yards and two touchdowns. San Francisco’s secondary — which is ranked second per DVOA — was torched by quarterback Drew Brees and Sean Payton last week.
The injuries will be the biggest concern. Still, Moseley and Witherspoon have certainly held up their own this season, as Witherspoon’s giving up a passer rating of 66.7 and Moseley is fourth on the team with four passes defended.
Last week it was Saints’ Michael Thomas, and this week it doesn’t get any easier with Falcons’ Julio Jones.
3. 49ers vs. Complacency
One of the most challenging things in the NFL is to maintain a high level of effort and competitiveness on a week-to-week basis regardless of who’s on the schedule. It’s easy for a coaching staff to motivate the troops when the team on the opposite sideline is the Ravens or Saints — but it’s much tougher when it’s the Falcons.
Kyle Shanahan’s done an excellent job of keeping the 49ers even-keeled and focused throughout the season, despite who’s been on their schedule. San Francisco’s two losses on the season have come by a combined six points, so they certainly haven’t had lulls or complacency set in.
The 49ers will need to avoid that if they want to finish the season 4-0 vs. NFC South. They’re coming off of two classic games and host the Rams on Saturday Night Football next week, so this has all the makings of a trap game.
San Francisco’s coaching staff will need to instill laser focus into the 49ers for this week, cause the Falcons are certainly better than their record shows. Atlanta has won three of the last five games, including knocking off New Orleans on the road. It’s a team that’s playing with house money, looking to ruin an easy victory for the 49ers.