Does anyone have a feeling of deja vu? It feels like we’ve seen this episode before. It’s a December, home matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons. If the 49ers are victorious they clinch a playoff spot. Nearly six years ago, in the final game played in Candlestick Park, the 49ers rode off into the sunset and the playoffs with an exciting victory over the Matt Ryan-led Falcons. Fast forward to Sunday and we have the visiting Falcons, once against led by Ryan, facing off against the 49ers looking to punch their ticket to the postseason. The players may have changed and the circumstances aren’t quite identical, but the matchup brings up many positive memories for San Francisco. Today we preview Sunday’s clash and look at the three keys to watch for.
Leaning on the Ground Game
Heading into Sunday’s clash, it can be forgiven if the San Francisco ground game offers a bout of deja vu. The 49ers have one of the top rushing attacks in the league and have a creative game plan to exploit defenses. Where the 2013 meeting featured more of a power attack, Kyle Shanahan‘s team is less hammer and more scalpel. Running backs Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida are the primary outside runner. Both backs have impressive speed and are shifty in the open field. Against New Orleans, Breida and Mostert combined for 123 yards on the ground on just 16 carries, including a score. Their 7.6 yards per carry is nothing new this season.
Atlanta is in the middle of the pack with their rush defense, surrendering an average of 108 yards per game. The 49ers offense averages 149 yards on the ground each game. San Francisco will be without starting center Weston Richburg. Ben Garland will be the starter after Richburg was placed on injured reserve with a torn patella tendon. Garland filled in admirably against the Saints. He will have his hands full with the interior of the Atlanta defensive line. The rest of the offensive line is healthy. Expect a healthy dose of the run as the 49ers will try to give their defense as much rest as possible due to the numerous injuries on that side of the football.
When the 49ers and Falcons played for the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco defense struggled early against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta passing attack. Part of the issue was an injury to Justin Smith. As if in a parallel universe or a fit of deja vu, this San Francisco defense is preparing for Atlanta’s offense with multiple injuries to starters. San Francisco is dealing with injuries at each level of their defense. Along the line, the 49ers will be without Dee Ford, D.J. Jones, Julian Taylor, Ronald Blair, and Damontre Moore. Outside linebacker Kwon Alexander is on injured reserve. In the secondary, the 49ers are without Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, and possibly K’Waun Williams.
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At some point, the losses add up. Against the Saints, the absence of Tartt showed with the lack of containment on tight end Jared Cook. New Orleans took advantage of replacement safety Marcell Harris with two touchdown receptions by Cook. Along the defensive line, the loss of depth has suddenly created an issue with an increase in workload. Earlier in the season, the defensive line featured a healthy rotation which allowed for fresh legs. Can the defense hold up against the Atlanta offense if the Falcons choose to increase tempo? The Atlanta offensive line has struggled mightily this season but will the increased workload over recent weeks, slow down the San Francisco pass rush?
As defenses have focused heavily on the ground game, Shanahan’s offense has moved towards the passing game. Luckily, Jimmy Garoppolo has been up to the test. Over the last four games, Garoppolo is averaging a completion percentage of 72.82%, 297 yards passing a game, and just under three touchdowns a game. When defenses have sold out to stop the run, Garoppolo and the passing attack has been there to answer the call. The emergence of the passing game centers on the addition of Emmanuel Sanders and the growth of Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuels.
Sanders, Bourne, and Samuels account for 41% of the team receiving yards. Samuel leads wide receivers with 640 yards on 47 receptions. The overall leading receiver for the 49ers is tight end, George Kittle. In just 11 games this season, Kittle has racked up 754 yards receiving on 60 receptions and 4 touchdowns. Kittle’s catch and run at the end of the game against the Saints displayed everything the tight end has to offer. However, as well as Kittle and the rest of the receiving corps have played in recent weeks, the kudos must be centered on Garoppolo. The quarterback’s accuracy and trust in his receivers have led to big plays for the offense. When the receiving group struggled for a few weeks with drops and poor performances, Garoppolo kept the faith and kept targeting his pass catchers.
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Step Back in Time
The last time the 49ers clinched a playoff birth was in 2013. That team secured their spot in the postseason with a late-season victory at home, against the Falcons. Call it deja vu or perhaps it’s a full-circle experience, the 49ers once again host the Falcons and can return to the playoffs with a victory. Similar to that 2013 team, the current iteration features a talented defense and a productive offense. Atlanta has talent on their roster but has struggled to put it together with any consistency. The 49ers have the opportunity to punch their ticket to the postseason. It will be a fun time in Santa Clara.
Prediction: 49ers pounce quickly and pull away, 33-17
– Ryan Adverderada is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage 49ers. He also covered the Arizona Cardinals for Full Press Coverage. Like and follow on Follow @ryanadverderada