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3 areas where the 49ers beat the Falcons: A goal-line stand for the ages

The pass rush and Kittle helped, too

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Things are starting to feel like they are clicking now, aren’t they? After an imposing 31-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are now winners of five of their last six and sit firmly in control of the sixth seed in the NFC Playoff race. This was as complete of a game as the 49ers have played all season, with the only blemishes being a couple of ill-timed special teams mistakes, most notably a JaMycal Hasty fumble on the opening kickoff.

Despite the occasional errors on special teams, the 49ers' offense and defense both did far more than enough to pick up the slack, as they found a way to do what good teams do, which is handling business at home against an inferior opponent. I will detail three different statistics/things that stood out to me in this game, which hopefully will leave 49ers fans feeling even better than they already do about this team as they enter the final three games of the season.

3

This was the number of times the 49ers' defense forced the Falcons offense to turn the ball over on downs inside the 49ers' 10-yard line, the first time in the last 40 years that a defense could pull that feat off in a single game. The 49ers' defense has forced an opponent to turn the ball over on downs inside their 10-yard line seven times this season, which is an absolutely mind-boggling number the more and more I think about it.

All three of the defensive stands inside their 10-yard line against the Falcons were extremely impressive, but none greater than the one that came on Atlanta’s first possession. Remember, the 49ers coughed up the ball on the opening kickoff and gifted Atlanta the ball on their own 12-yard line to start the game. This had all the makings of yet another instance where the 49ers put themselves into an early hole with self-inflicted mistakes.

After a completion to tight end Kyle Pitts, Atlanta faced 1st and goal from the 49ers one-yard line. After a handoff to Cordarrelle, Patterson was initially ruled a touchdown. Replay review ruled that the runner was down before breaking the plane.

After an incomplete pass intended for tight end Lee Smith (who was draped in coverage by Fred Warner), the Falcons faced 3rd & goal from the one-yard line. On a toss play to the right, they gave the ball to Patterson again, who exploded into the running lane before being absolutely walloped by Arik Armstead just shy of the goal line.

4th & goal from the one-yard line and Atlanta decides to go for it (and who can fault them, you almost have to in that spot given the circumstances). Atlanta calls for a pass play to the right. They intend to get the ball to rookie phenom Kyle Pitts on a quick-out route after setting a natural pick with wide receiver Tajae Sharpe if everything goes right, a layup throw and catch for a veteran quarterback like Matt Ryan.

Jaquiski Tartt had other plans, however. Tartt, who was responsible for covering Pitts, sensed the pick coming from Sharpe, got enough depth to avoid being erased from the play, and then proceeded to explode onto the ball and break up the pass before it got to Pitts for what would have been a Falcons touchdown.

It was a big-time play from a big-time player in a big-time spot. Add in the plays by Warner, Armstead, and the rest of this defense, and this goal-line stand truly set the tone for what would ultimately end up being a rout for the hometown 49ers.

The 49ers' defense also recorded two more goal-line stands in the fourth quarter, which kept a three-score lead intact and helped avoid any high-stress moments late in the game should Atlanta have succeeded in cutting into that deficit.

The extremely underrated safety duo of Tartt and Jimmie Ward had their fingerprints all over this historic defensive showing. First, Ward had a huge stop short of the line to gain on a Patterson run on 4th & 1 from the 49ers 8-yard line. On the very next possession, Tartt (with the help of Marcell Harris) stonewalled a scrambling Ryan just shy of the goal line.

41%

The percentage of dropbacks that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was pressured by the 49ers' defense. This included 12/23 (52%) in the second half. The 49ers' defense had Ryan in disarray all game long, repeatedly getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc on a clearly inferior Falcons offensive line. This 49ers' defensive line appears to be getting hot at just the right time, logging eight sacks over their last two games.

Most of these pressures against Atlanta came while rushing four, but defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans got into a nice groove while calling blitzes in the right spot in this game. Of the four blitzes called by Ryans in the second half, two turned into sacks, including Nick Bosa’s strip-sack of Ryan that led to a touchdown drive for the 49ers after Fred Warner recovered the ball.

Bosa now has 15 sacks on the season, which ties him with Myles Garret of the Cleveland Browns (who has yet to play his week 15 game) for the second-most in the entire NFL. Bosa currently ranks second in the NFL in QB hits as well, and week after week is producing at a level that has firmly placed him in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year

Arden Key and Samson Ebukam also logged a sack of their own (Key should have had two but was flagged for one of the most egregious “roughing the passer” penalties I have ever seen). Key’s recent production is particularly notable because it coincides with the 49ers' defensive staff making a concerted effort to utilize Key as a pass rusher on the interior. I noticed this trend in week 10, so let’s take a look at Key’s numbers before and after this change was made

Before week 10:

  • 8 games
  • 1 sack
  • 8 pressures

Since week 10:

  • 6 games
  • 5 sacks
  • 15 pressures

Based on visuals/the eye test, there is clearly something there when Key is lined up on the interior, but these numbers magnify that even more. Key has recorded at least one sack in 6 of his last 7 games and has evolved into one of the 49ers' most important pieces on a defense that is playing at an incredibly high level right now.

The defensive line depth many of us (certainly me) expected to be a strength of this team all season was on full display, as the 49ers pass rush ran 7-8 deep all game. The constant rotation took its toll on the Atlanta offense as there never appeared to be a noticeable drop-off in the intensity coming from the defensive line late in the game, likely a product of the rotation keeping guys fresh for 60 minutes.

4,429

The amount of receiving yards amassed by star tight end George Kittle so far in his career moved him past Rob Gronkowski for the third most by a tight end in their first five seasons in NFL history. After his 93 yard performance vs. Atlanta, Kittle now only trails Kellen Winslow Sr. (4,513) and Jimmy Graham (4,752) on the all-time list.

Kittle also reached 425 yards receiving over his last three games, which tied Raiders' tight end, Darren Waller, for the most yards over a three-game span for a tight end during the Super Bowl era. Kittle’s recent hot streak has been must-see TV, as the 49ers offensive star has been on a tear while averaging 89 yards per game since returning from injured reserve in week 9

Kittle over that span :

44 receptions

623 yards

6 touchdowns

That’s good for an average of 89 yards per game, and the six touchdowns over that span eclipses the previous career-high Kittle had for an entire season (5). Kittle was first-team all-pro in 2019, and we cannot forget that he did set the record for receiving yards in a season for a tight end in 2018 with 1,377. But this stretch we are witnessing now is arguably the best football we have seen from Kittle.

To wrap this up, this 49ers team is rolling at just the right time, and for the first time, all season has finally appeared to establish some kind of identity. Between the roster loaded with blue-chip talent and the physical style of football they play, I can guarantee you no team in the NFC looks forward to drawing a playoff matchup with this 49ers team come January.

But alas, that is further down the road than we need to focus on currently, so for now, enjoy yet another 49ers win and get ready for a quick turnaround as the 49ers will head to Tennessee to take Titans on Thursday night in Nashville.