The 49ers dropped their game to the previously 4-9 Falcons on Sunday when the Falcons had two scoring plays reviewed and saw both sidelines erupt in cheers thinking they won the game. It was the third such game that they have lost in the game’s final five seconds. Aside from that last two minutes, the 49ers looked tired, fatigued, or generally uninterested in winning a game they probably thought they were going to win regardless.
In the final two minutes, the Falcons drove the length of the field after the 49ers went up by five points 22-17 on the leg of Robbie Gould after Kittle fumbled the ball trying to secure a first down. It was just one of several mistakes made that afternoon, and it compounded all on the final drive as Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan drove his offense the length of the field, culminating in the game-winning touchdown throw to Julio Jones with five seconds remaining.
The first potential touchdown pass was reviewed after it appeared tight end Austin Hooper came down with the catch. The replay showed that the ball came out of Hooper’s grasp after it touched the ground, prompting officials in replay central in New York to overturn the touchdown on the field to an incomplete pass. On the ensuing play, Ryan found Jones on a crossing route after avoiding the pass rush, and Jones was hit at the goal line by safety Jimmie Ward, but the ball barely broke the plane.
The call on the field was down at the goal line, but as the play came inside of two minutes left in the contest, it was automatically reviewed and reversed to a touchdown. Still, the 49ers were not without their opportunities to win the game on offense and defense.
After the game, defensive end Nick Bosa alluded to the idea that they were not as prepared or focused as they should’ve been when he stated that “At this point in the season, it’s just a grind, so we have to prepare better. Get our bodies more ready.”
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said after the game that “I wouldn’t say it was one specific thing. I think it was just things going wrong, us not making plays when we needed to, just little things like that here and there that throughout a game, they add up. Just little mistakes that we can’t make.”
Despite all of that, the 49ers clinched a playoff spot. Where that spot remains up in the air, but they still have a shot at the number one overall seed. Mistakes were made on both sides of the ball, and we’ll cover those, but it’s tough to ignore the impact two players on offense had despite the outcome. Here are five things to like and dislike going forward into the remaining weeks as they look to clinch a first-round bye.
1. Raheem Mostert may be the best running back on the team
In the last four games, running back Raheem Mostert has totaled 314 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 49 carries, and seven receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown. Though he hasn’t been the primary running back, with running back Tevin Coleman still getting the nod to start games, Mostert has emerged as perhaps the best running back on the roster right now. His presence on the field on Sunday was noticeable, and the 49ers scored 10 points with him out there.
The reliance on gap scheme runs with Mostert has added an element to the running game that is hard for defenses to prepare for. Shanahan’s running game is known for being one of the more diverse running game’s in the league, even as he predominantly relies on the outside zone run as the base run. The motions and shifts alone are still able to disguise the play itself and are utilized to move defenders around the box for better blocking angles.
The Falcons clearly prepared for the gap scheme running game but playing a “3-0-3” or “Tite front” where the defense covers up or shades the guards in the B-gap to prevent the offense fro executing double teams common with power or counter runs.
The play is a lead zone to the left behind George Kittle, who is in the F position in the backfield. Mostert takes the handoff to the right but has the option to bend back to the backside A-gap depending on the blocking scheme. There is A-gap penetration against right guard Mike Person, though, so Mosert’s read comes back to the play side outside of the tackle. He quickly reads the gap penetration and changes direction to the left, gets upfield for seven yards.
On the touchdown run, the ability to read the zone lanes quickly stands out again when he makes his read to cut off the backside for the running lane.
Mostert’s ability to see the lane and keep moving in tight space is easier said than done. Inside the five-yard line, runners need to be decisive and stick with their first read because they don’t often have time in compressed space to cut back and look for other options. Not Mostert, who upon seeing the front side of the line closed off, keeps his momentum going by changing direction slightly and seeing the lane off the weak side for the touchdown.
2. George Kittle is the primary focal point of the offense
Tight end George Kittle had himself a game as well. Though he didn’t find the end zone for a touchdown, he still caught 13 passes for 134 yards on 17 targets, 50% of Garoppolo’s pass attempts.
Kittle is to the right of the line running a “chase” route (deep out) on the sail concept with the outside receiver running a clear out to open the sideline for Kittle. Over the last two years, Kittle has become a better route runner each game.
Here he gets a stutter release off the snap and prevents the defender from getting a jam on him. As he releases vertically upfield, he stacks the defender behind and gives a hard inside move before cutting out. The defender loses him, and Kittle comes down with a catch on an otherwise high throw from Garoppolo.
Though he didn’t get many yards after the catch on that play, it wouldn’t be a 49ers game without a physical run after the catch by Kittle.
The play call is “FK 18 support” (outside zone fake to the strong side, boot the opposite way), and Kittle is running a sift route out of the backfield. As he catches the pass and gets upfield, free safety Damontae Kazee comes in for the tackle, but Kittle stiff-arms him in the helmet and shoved him into the ground and gets a few more yards before going out of bounds.
Just Kittle being a monster in Week 15 per the usual pic.twitter.com/KRAXYEP0Uf— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) December 18, 2019
Kittle also had a great in pass protection and run blocking, two areas that don’t always show up on the broadcast.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo off-target on several throws
Jimmy Garoppolo is not the reason the 49ers lost. But he also didn’t help their case either as he made several off-target throws, one of which was nearly picked off. On the day, Garoppolo was 22-34 for 200 yards and one touchdown and only faced pressure on ten dropbacks per Pro Football Focus.
On the play above, receiver Deebo Samuel is running a quick slant route against Blidi Wreh-Wilson (No. 33). The route combo to the trips side is designed to clear out the zone for the slant route with Bourne running an OTB route (“over the ball”) and Breida running out to the flat to get the flat defender to widen with him.
Garoppolo is under no pressure but throws the pass too far inside against a defender with inside leverage over the top. Wreh-Wilson nearly intercepts it, but it goes through his hands, up in the air, and bounces off safety Ricardo Allen. Some of the throws in this game were uncharacteristic of his performances in the last eight games, where he’s thrown 19 touchdown passes to five interceptions. An interception on what otherwise became a scoring drive would’ve been catastrophic.
4. Offensive line feeling the loss of Weston Richburg
With center Weston Richburg out for the season with a torn patella tendon, the 49ers turned to veteran back-up center Ben Garland. Garland has been average to below-average since taking over for Richburg in against the Saints. Although the 49ers offensive line only gave up ten total pressures to the Falcons, it seemed like they were in the backfield at key moments, preventing the offense from moving the ball effectively.
But Garland wasn’t the biggest issue along the offensive line. The left side tandem of Tomlinson and Staley was particularly bad, and so was Mike Person, who turned in a grade 25.8 per Pro Football Focus.
Staley gave up a quick sack on the 49er’s first drive to Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley when Beasley took an easy inside rush lane after Staley jumped out to wide to counter the edge’s speed. Beasley is more than just a speed rusher, though.
In the second clip, Deadrin Senat (No. 94) eventually splits the double team of Staley and Tomlinson when Tomlinson drops off to help center Ben Garland. This blown protection is credited to Tomlinson, however, as there was no need to leave Staley alone on this block, at least not until Staley had full control of the defender.
Although this play did not technically count due to a roughing the passer penalty, what happened before the end of the play is alarming and was a microcosm of the issues facing the left side of the line. Left guard Laken Tomlinson (No. 75) is working against defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (No. 97). At the snap, Jarrett gets Tomlinson to lunge forward by simulating a bull rush.
As Tomlinson lunges, Jarrett chops and swipes aside his punch and rushes through the B-gap virtually unopposed. Tomlinson was immediately off-balance, and for most linemen, that’s automatically a lost rep. Fortunately, the sack didn’t count due to Jarrett hitting Garoppolo low at the knees. Unfortunately, Garoppolo did get hit low at the knees, and his post-ACL knee absorbed most of it.
The worst grade of the day, though, goes to Mike Person, who gave up five total pressures and turned in a 25.8 grade for turning in plays like the one above, where he gets bull rushed from snap to whistle into the backfield by Jarrett, causing Garoppolo to have to reset away from a wide-open throw for his check down in the flat.
5. The Falcons final two play sequence
Falcons receiver Julio Jones, like Kittle, also caught 13 passes for 134 yards. But unlike Kittle, Jones also caught two touchdown passes, including the eventual game-winner on a pass everyone in the stadium knew was going to. Julio was also their primary target on third down, with Jones responsible for converting six of Atlanta’s third downs.
Atlanta was 7-13 on third down. On the season the 49ers are averaging about 4-13 per game, which is 2nd in the league. I thought that’s where the injuries really showed up.— KP (@KP_Show) December 16, 2019
Julio was responsible for six of those seven conversions.
After the Falcons drove the length of the field on their final drive, they faced a second-and-5 from the 49ers five-yard line.
The Falcons pass concept is an in route from the slot at a depth of around 10 yards with a spot route underneath it. It’s designed to pull up the hook defender to that side, isolating the slot receiver on the strong safety. The 49ers are in a cover-2 read coverage to the short side of the field. In 2-read, the safety, Marcell Harris, is reading inside out #2 to the #1 receiver and is responsible for #2 vertical while Moseley is responsible for anything out to the flat if #1 is in.
The concept immediately removes Moseley from the defense and leaves tight end Austin Hooper 1-on-1 with Harris as Warner drops to the hook with the #1 receiver. Hooper can’t hang on to the pass, and it’s ruled that he lost control after the ball touched the ground, making it an incomplete pass.
With one more shot at the end zone on third down, the Falcons looked to Jones to secure the victory. The previous play revealed a weakness in playing 2-read at the goal line. If both receivers are in, the corner stays put. It creates an advantage in that it removes a better coverage defender for a safety that isn’t as good at covering faster receivers. Especially as a back-up safety.
The play concept is out of an old playbook from Dirk Koetter (currently the Falcons offensive coordinator) and is a basic flanker drive concept with a dig route over the top of a shallow cross or “drive” route from the “flanker” or Z receiver. With this concept against that coverage, there is no reason that Moseley would travel with Jones, who motioned over to a tight split. The Falcons likely knew this and anticipated it based on coverages the 49ers have played in the red zone this season, which is a heavy reliance on 2-read.
Hooper is running the dig route, but it’s clear what the Falcons intent was, as it appears his only job is to clear out the coverage and create pick on Harris, who was responsible for a bracket coverage on Jones on the drive route. Harris was too far outside to make any play on the pass. The Falcons likely anticipated that they might get a similar look to the previous play. With both Jones and Hooper inside, there was no one to cover Jones on the drive route.
In the play diagram above, it appears the slot to the left ran the wrong route too as his job would’ve been to occupy Ward deeper in the end zone but as he runs a shallow curl route, Ward stays in the hook zone and nearly prevents Jones from crossing the goal line.
In fact, he did prevent it, but the ball barely broke the plane in the review. Although he was initially ruled down, the replay review was initiated as the play came inside of two minutes left to play.
The 49ers have a lot clean up on a short week with the Rams coming to Santa Clara for a Saturday night prime time game. The Rams are having their fair share of struggles too and would love nothing more than to spoil a first-round bid for a division rival. Clay Matthews returned to the lineup last month, and after the first game against San Francisco, they traded for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The results have been mixed, but the 49ers cannot afford to approach this game with the same frame of mind as they did against the Falcons.
It’s not too late for the 49ers to return the same high level of play they were showing week after week until the historically tough three-game stretch they just endured, and the problems will need to be cleaned up if they’re going to have a shot at a first-round bye. I don’t think they are indicative of larger issues, but it is increasingly more difficult to make a deep playoff run as the five seed and losing to the Falcons will be looked back on as a game they should’ve and could’ve won. They cannot afford to come out with the same energy against the Rams.