Five 49ers to Watch Against the Falcons
After two straight weeks of playing a conference-leading team on the road, the San Francisco 49ers (11-2) will head back to Levi’s Stadium to host the Atlanta Falcons (4-9).
A win on Sunday would not only put the 49ers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, it would be head coach Kyle Shanahan’s first playoff appearance since he was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl. However, a win will only happen if some players on the 49ers have a solid performance.
That is why these five 49ers should be watched closely against the Falcons in week 15.
It’s no secret the 49ers love to set up their play-action by running the ball. Coming into the 2019 season, it was expected those running backs would be Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and maybe a healthy Jerrick McKinnon.
Yet, with all three suffering injuries this season, Raheem Mostert has taken full advantage of the opportunities he’s earned. Mostert, a career special teamer, has forced his way onto the field with his speed and durability. In Mostert’s last two games, he totaled 215 rushing yards, 48 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He now leads the 49ers with 608 rushing yards and is the only back to not miss a game.
He is so quick, he often gets through the hole and past the safeties before they even determine if the ball was actually handed off. With Breida and Coleman seemingly healthy, Mostert should not lose any playing time. The 49ers have the luxury of three running backs they trust. The best thing to do is run with the hot hand, and that 100 percent is Mostert.
Starting center Weston Richburg suffered a torn patella tendon against New Orleans and is done for the season. In his place will be journeyman backup center, and former Atlanta Falcon, Ben Garland.
Outside of the quarterback-center exchange, eyes should be on Garland’s blocking ability. In 65 snaps this season, Garland has allowed just one sack. That’s pretty good for a reserve lineman.
However, those snaps were all as a mid-to-late-game replacement. With a week of preparation knowing that Garland is starting, the Falcons could design their defensive game plan to go through Garland. They should know him well, as he started seven games over three seasons as a Falcon.
Fortunately for Garland, Atlanta has been disappointing on defense, especially in pass-rush. The Falcons have just 23 sacks (tied for 29th in the NFL). They are also average (tied for 15th in the NFL) with 108 rushing yards allowed per game. This game won’t be the loftiest test for Garland, but it could build some much-needed confidence before playing Aaron Donald in the week 16 matchup against the Rams.
Three weeks ago, the 49ers shutdown Green Bay tight end Jimmy Graham, but have since allowed three touchdowns in two games to the opposing starting tight end. Things don’t get easier this week as Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper comes to town. The responsibility of guarding Hooper will alternate up and down the defense, but middle linebacker Fred Warner will likely draw him the most.
Hooper (6 feet 4 inches and 254 pounds) is very similar to Baltimore’s Mark Andrews (6 feet 5 inches and 256 pounds) and New Orleans’ Jared Cook (6 feet 5 inches and 254 pounds). Hooper is a red zone monster (six touchdowns) and averages 5.8 catches a game. When it comes to guarding tight ends, the 49ers have struggled of late, but that experience should only make them better for this upcoming game.
Warner surrendered a touchdown to Andrews, but learned from his mistake and made some key pass deflections in the game. Against Cook, however, the 49ers did not find a lot of success. They only had two drives to do so, but both ended in Cook touchdowns. The 49ers, and Warner, can’t rely on an injury to bail them out this time. They will need to quickly formulate a way to shut down Hooper, given that he could be the focal point of the offense with wide receiver Julio Jones potentially being inactive.
The best way to shut down Hooper will likely be a zone coverage with Warner in the middle, especially if Jones is out. In that case, the 49ers can have a safety protect over the top, allowing Warner to be extremely aggressive in the middle. If Warner can take care of Hooper, the 49ers should have no problem winning this game.
The first three seasons of Solomon Thomas’ career have not gone to plan. The former No. 3 overall pick, however, has a great chance to reopen some eyes this weekend. Atlanta’s offense has surrendered 41 sacks (eighth in the NFL) and could be without its top two receivers. This places a lot of pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan to find an inexperienced open receiver with not a lot of time.
The Falcons will key on blocking Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, which could lead to open chances for the rest of the 49ers’ defensive line. Especially with starting nose tackle D.J. Jones out and edge rusher Dee Ford possibly out, Thomas could become the top pass-rusher off the bench in the defensive line rotation.
Thomas almost made the play of his career last Sunday, when he seemingly won the game by sacking Drew Brees with 7:53 left on third-and-5. But symbolic of his career, the play was negated due to penalty. This week, expect Thomas to build off that great play by getting to Ryan, only this time the loss will count toward the stat sheet.
The Atlanta offense would be dealt a major blow if Jones is unable to go. Although his job would be much easier, Ahkello Witherspoon should want a chance to guard Jones. Just like Jones, starting corner Richard Sherman could be out this Sunday. If he is, Witherspoon would be the top dog and likely draw Jones a lot in coverage.
The 49ers should be able to beat the Falcons regardless of Jones’ status, but a chance to learn from the Pro Bowl receiver is irreplaceable for Witherspoon. Getting to guard someone better than you is a great way to measure your talent and what you must improve on. Witherspoon would get that with Jones. New Orleans wide receiver Michael Thomas was able to haul in 11 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
That might have damaged the defensive backfield’s confidence, but a chance to rebound and shutdown Jones should raise it right back up. If Jones is out, Witherspoon should feast on the inexperienced Atlanta receiver group. Only Russell Gage has more than 300 receiving yards. Whether it’s Jones, Gage, or another Atlanta receiver, a strong performance by Witherspoon on Sunday could build a lot of momentum heading into the postseason.