According to DraftKings SportsBook, the Niners are 5-point favorites against the Atlanta Falcons. It will be their second straight eastern time zone road game, and, as is customary, the team stayed at The Greenbrier in West Virginia to keep their body clocks adjusted and the game plan installed.
These two teams faced off late last season for a 31-13 victory for the Niners in what might be best remembered as the “Deebo Mouth Guard” game. For reference:
Deebo Samuel just knocked this CB's mouthpiece to San Jose pic.twitter.com/1hXdcqU4bs— KNBR (@KNBR) December 19, 2021
Can the Niners put the Falcons away with similar authority this year? Can we expect to see Desmond Ridder at some point? And how many mouthguards can Deebo collect this time? For answers like this and more, I reached out to Kevin Knight at The Falcoholic to give us the most up-to-date scouting report.
1. This will be Arthur Smith’s sixth game of his second season in Atlanta. In this relatively short amount of time in charge, how would you grade his abilities as a head coach? Are you starting to see his vision for the team becoming a reality?
It’s been far from a flawless start for Arthur Smith, but it’s important to remember that he inherited a disastrous roster back in 2021. The Falcons were weighed down by multiple bad contracts, an aging QB in Matt Ryan, and just generally had a roster bereft of young talent. Smith’s offense was disappointing in 2021, but the fact that he got that team to a 7-10 record is nothing short of miraculous.
This season, Atlanta is dealing with the largest dead cap hit in history (taking up 37% of their total cap space), and Smith and GM Terry Fontenot once again have this team playing competitive football.
With two drafts under their belts and a QB who much more closely fits the archetype they’re looking for, we’ve finally seen Smith’s offensive vision begin to take shape. The running game has undergone a vast improvement, as the Falcons are 3rd in the NFL in rushing yardage and average 5.1 YPC. The passing game is not quite there yet, as Marcus Mariota has been inconsistent as a passer, but the offense as a whole is much better than expected.
2. Kyle Pitts returned to practice Wednesday and said that he expects to play on Sunday against the 49ers. He represents the first of two pass catchers drafted in the top ten by the Falcons, the other being Drake London. So far, how do you feel about these two players and their usage?
Kyle Pitts had an awesome rookie season on a bad team in 2021. Expectations, naturally, were sky-high for Pitts coming into 2022. Unfortunately, Marcus Mariota is just not the right QB to get Pitts the ball. Pitts is still great and has actually developed into a quality blocker as well.
Prior to Week 6, Pitts led the NFL in the percentage of targets deemed “off-target” with 32%. On the other hand, Drake London immediately hit the ground running and took over the WR1 role for the Falcons this season. His high-level short-to-intermediate game has made him a favorite of Mariota, and he’s currently Atlanta’s leading receiver. So far, both players look like the real deal—it’s just that the offense with Mariota at the helm will always be limited in terms of the passing game.
3. Last week, Grady Jarrett and the Falcons' defense were on the wrong side of what might be the worst “roughing the passer” penalty ever under the new rules. That said, Jarrett’s been playing quite well. Who else should Niners fans keep an eye on to wreak havoc for Jimmy G and company?
Grady Jarrett has continued to be a one-man wrecking crew on the interior defensive line, and I really hope the Falcons find a quality running mate for him...someday. Second-year DT Ta’Quon Graham has been a bright spot as a starter next to Jarrett, particularly as a run defender, but Atlanta really lacks an interior pass rush outside of Jarrett.
2021 second-round safety Richie Grant has taken over a starting job and looked like one of the best players on defense this year. The outside CB duo of A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward have been consistently good this year, if not as dominant as we hoped, and reserve slot corner Dee Alford has really stepped up in Isaiah Oliver’s absence. It is possible we see Oliver return this week off IR, as he’s been practicing since Week 5.
4. Marcus Mariota seems to be a prototypical bridge quarterback, and the Falcons selected Desmond Ridder from Cincinnati with an eye toward the future. How likely is it the Niners might see Ridder in relief of Mariota this Sunday? Do you envision Ridder being the starter anytime this year?
I think the chances of Desmond Ridder playing in Week 6 are remote outside of an injury. However, I think Mariota has not done much as a passer over the past few weeks to hold off Ridder for long. I do expect Ridder will get an opportunity to start at some point this year. The earliest would likely be Week 8 against the Panthers, but it could also be any time after that. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot need to see if they have something in Ridder because that could completely change their off-season plan in 2023. I trust that as soon as the staff believes Ridder gives them a better chance to win than Mariota, he’ll play.
5. Who are you predicting to win, and by what score?
This is a really difficult matchup for the Falcons, as the 49ers seemingly counter their greatest strength on paper. However, Atlanta has found success running the ball against pretty much every defense they’ve faced, so they’re unlikely to get totally shut down. This Falcons team is going to play everyone close unless things go catastrophically wrong, and I’d expect this game to be in contention all the way until the end, but the 49ers do seem to have the advantage. I’ll predict a 49ers win by a score of 24-17.