It feels as though, on paper, the 49ers shouldn’t have much of an issue with the Falcons, but Atlanta has been close in all their games through five weeks. Atlanta’s biggest margin of defeat this season was last week when they lost to the Buccaneers by six and are 5-0 against the spread.
However, of the 25 teams that have started a season 5-0 against the spread over the last 40 years, the Falcons are the only ones to have an under .500 record.
Here are three matchups that will decide just how close of a game it will be in Atlanta on Sunday:
49ers interior offensive line vs. DT Grady Jarrett
Jarrett has been one of the best, if not the best, players on the Falcons' defense so far this season. The Falcons' defensive tackle is tied for third with 20 pressures at an interior defensive lineman position (tied with Chris Jones and Daron Payne) and leads the Falcons with 3.5 sacks. He’s also one of two players on the Falcons' defense with more than one sack (Lorenzo Carter has 1.5 sacks). Jarrett has also been just as dominant in the run game, leading the Falcons with five tackles for loss.
The interior of the 49ers' offensive line has allowed 17 of the unit’s 38 pressures but has not been credited for a sack allowed yet. Aaron Banks, Spencer Burford, and Daniel Brunskill will likely see most of Jarrett, as 65 percent of his snaps have been against the guards, with an even 50/50 split on which side of the offensive line he’s on. Where the interior of the line has done well is in the running game, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 60 attempts on runs between the tackles, with 12 of the attempts resulting in first downs.
49ers run defense vs. the Atlanta rushing attack
Where Atlanta struggles in their passing attack (30th-ranked passing offense), they more than makeup in the running attack. The Falcons have the third-most rushing yards in the NFL behind a ground attack that features Cordarelle Patterson, Tyler Algeier, and Marcus Mariota, with all three over 100 rushing yards on the season. Where the Falcons do most of their damage is outside the tackles, gaining 411 of their 823 rushing yards around the edges.
So how do the 49ers stop the Atlanta rushing attack? They’ll likely be without Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Kinlaw on Sunday, so the depth on the line will be a bit stretched, but Talanoa Hufanga, Dre Greenlaw, and Fred Warner have been important pieces in the 49ers' top-ranked rushing defense. As mentioned above, Atlanta has struggled in the pass game, which should free up Hufanga to play more snaps close to the line where he’s excelled, making 15 run-stopping tackles and 11 defensive stops, leading the 49ers in both categories per Pro Football Focus.
TE George Kittle vs. the Atlanta secondary
Through the first five weeks of the season, opposing tight ends have averaged six receptions for 53.6 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. However, if you remove Taysom Hill’s Week 1 performance of one reception for two yards, those averages jump to seven receptions per game for 67 yards. Atlanta’s top two linebackers, Mykal Walker and Rashaan Evans, haven’t been the best in coverage, allowing 42 receptions on 48 targets (an 87.5 completion percentage) and allowing a combined 376 yards. Still, neither has allowed a touchdown on the season.
Kittle will definitely be looking forward to taking advantage of the middle of the field, as seven of his 15 targets on the season have come against opposing linebackers. Against Carolina last week, Kittle was targeted six times for five receptions with 47 yards and a lost fumble. It seemed Kyle Shanahan was trying to get Kittle action early and often up until the point of his fumble, but with Atlanta’s poor defense against the pass and specifically against tight ends, the same plan could be in place. Kittle finished last year’s game against Atlanta with six receptions for 93 yards, so there is a track record of success against this Falcons' defense.