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NFL Preview - San Francisco (0-3) at Atlanta (2-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - One week after taking control of the NFC South with a monumental win at the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons will be a team trying to avoid an ill-timed letdown. The struggling San Francisco 49ers, who have undergone a serious coaching alteration in the week preceding Sunday's tilt at the Georgia Dome, will be the opponent attempting to catch the Falcons off-guard.
The Falcons were 27-24 overtime winners against the Saints last week, with New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley's miss of a 29-yard field goal in overtime helping to open the door to Atlanta's first win in New Orleans since 2002 and a first-place tie atop the NFC South along with New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Once Hartley missed, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan engineered a 12-play, 52- yard drive - which included a critical 13-yard first- down scramble - to get the Falcons within range for a Matt Bryant field goal, and the Atlanta kicker made his 46-yard try under intense pressure in a hostile environment.
Though Atlanta was able to benefit from the Hartley miss, the Falcons hardly stole the win. Ryan and company churned up 417 yards - including 202 on the ground - and controlled the ball for more than 45 minutes of the game clock in the contest. Running backs Michael Turner (30 carries, 114 yards, 1 TD) and Jason Snelling (14 carries, 62 yards) failed to break off many highlight-reel runs, but moved the chains against a faltering Saints front seven and were an underrated part of an eventful afternoon.
The Falcons defense put the team in position for a win by forcing three turnovers from Drew Brees and a legendarily efficient Saints offense, and limited the New Orleans rushing game to just 43 yards on 16 carries after entering the day surrendering a league-worst 5.9 yards per rush.
On paper, the challenge of stopping Alex Smith and the 49ers attack does not look as arduous, though a change at the offensive coordinator position for San Francisco throws an unknown element into the equation.
One day after giving coordinator Jimmy Raye a vote of confidence, Niners head coach Mike Singletary fired him on Monday, elevating quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson to the role in the wake of San Francisco's first 0-3 start since 2004.
The 49ers' 31-10 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs last week saw San Francisco generated just 11 first downs, 251 yards of total offense, and commit its seventh turnover of the year.
The San Francisco defense did the team no favors either, allowing 457 yards to a formerly plodding Chiefs attack, including 250 yards through the air for quarterback Matt Cassel and a combined 192 yards on the ground from running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
The 49ers are one of five remaining winless NFL teams, joining the Bills, Browns, Lions and Panthers.
San Francisco is trying to avoid its first 0-4 start since that ill-fated '04 season, when it finished 2-14 under head coach Dennis Erickson.
San Francisco holds a 44-28-1 edge in the regular season series with Atlanta, but has lost each of the last three head-to-head matchups. The Falcons were 45-10 road winners when they visited San Francisco in Week 5 of last season, and prevailed by a 20-16 margin when the teams last met at the Georgia Dome, in 2007. The 49ers' last wins in the series came in 2001, when they swept a home-and-home against their then-NFC West rival.
The Falcons won the only postseason meeting between the two teams, a 20-18 decision in a 1998 NFC Divisional Playoff contest in Atlanta.
Atlanta's Mike Smith is 1-0 against both the 49ers and Singletary. Singletary succeeded Smith as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, after Smith was named defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Johnson takes over coordinator duties for an offense that has managed just 38 points through three games and has not seen anything resembling consistency from either the passing game or running game. After playing well in a Monday night loss to the Saints, Smith (732 passing yards, 2 TD, 5 INT) took a step back against the Chiefs, completing just 23-of-42 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown to Josh Morgan (10 receptions, 1 TD) on the last play of the game, an interception, and five sacks absorbed. Smith carries a subpar 66.2 passer rating into Week 4. Morgan, who suffered a knee injury on the TD catch, is expected to play this week. Tight end Vernon Davis (15 receptions) has made a significant contribution but the team is still waiting for Michael Crabtree (6 receptions) to be a reliable receiving presence. Running back Frank Gore (193 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 2 TD) led the pass-catchers with nine receptions for 102 yards last week, but carried 15 times for a mere 43 yards on the ground and didn't have a rush longer than six yards. Brian Westbrook (2 receptions) has been a non-factor. Clearly, the Niners need a stronger effort out of the offensive line if they are to pull off the upset this week.
Though the Falcons defense got generally high marks for its work against a good Saints offense last week, this is a unit that must do a better job of guarding against the big play. After giving up big runs to the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall and Cardinals' Tim Hightower over the season's first two weeks, Saints wideout Lance Moore got behind the defense for an 80-yard touchdown catch last week. At the same time, Atlanta has made a number of big plays, recording a league-high-tying six interceptions, along with the Buccaneers. Safety Thomas DeCoud (14 tackles, 1 INT) and corner Brent Grimes (10 tackles, 1 INT) each had picks last week, while end John Abraham (6 tackles, 2 sacks) and tackle Jonathan Babineaux (6 tackles, 2 sacks) each notched sacks. After shutting down the New Orleans running game last week, the Falcons are now 12th in the NFL against the run. Linebackers Curtis Lofton (22 tackles, 1 sack) and Sean Weatherspoon (24 tackles, 1 sack), who combined for 15 tackles last Sunday, have been a major part of that effort.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Ryan (705 passing yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) will be feeling at home on Sunday ... literally. The third-year quarterback enters the Niners contest with a record of 14-1 as a starter at the Georgia Dome, including 10 straight wins since a loss to the Broncos on Nov. 16, 2008. He could have an enhancement to his receiving corps this week, as Michael Jenkins (shoulder) has a chance to make his 2010 debut after missing the team's first three contests. Receiver Roddy White (25 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (12 receptions, 1 TD) have largely made up for Jenkins' absence, with both scoring touchdowns against the Saints and Gonzalez posting his best outing of the year with eight catches for 110 yards. White exploded for eight catches, 210 yards, and two touchdowns against the 49ers last year. Both Turner (231 rushing yards, 1 TD) and Snelling (195 rushing yards, 2 TD) were heavily involved in the offensive gameplan last week, though it appears that Turner will be getting two carries for Snelling's every one. Turner had 97 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns versus San Francisco last season. The Falcons o-line has surrendered five sacks thus far in 2010.
Though a change was made at the offensive coordinator position in San Francisco this week, perhaps the most galling aspect of last week's loss was the nearly non-existent play of a defense that was gutted for 457 yards. After allowing the Chiefs to run roughshod last week, there have been reports that linebacker Takeo Spikes (12 tackles) and safety Michael Lewis (10 tackles) would both be benched for the Atlanta game, though Singletary has denied those reports. Stopping the Falcons run will be job number one on Sunday, and middle linebacker Patrick Willis (27 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive linemen Aubrayo Franklin (10 tackles) and Justin Smith (14 tackles) will be a major part of that effort. The pass rush, which has generated just three sacks on the year thus far, must get going as well. Outside linebackers Travis LaBoy (9 tackles,1 sack) and Manny Lawson (12 tackles) will be a major part of that effort. On the back end, cornerbacks Nate Clements (14 tackles, 1 INT) and Shawntae Spencer (4 tackles, 1 INT) will be looking to keep White and perhaps Jenkins in check, with safety Dashon Goldson (15 tackles) offering some help over the top. The Niners are 31st in scoring defense as Week 4 begins, but a better 17th in yards allowed. San Francisco is also one of two NFL teams that has yet to force a lost fumble on the year (Philadelphia).
The struggles of the 49ers offense have not necessarily translated to fantasy struggles for the likes of Gore and Davis. Gore struggled on the ground last week, but added value with 100-plus receiving yards and remains a must-play. Davis doesn't have a touchdown yet but that should change sooner rather than later. Otherwise, not a lot of great options, though Morgan could be a decent flex option if you have a wideout on a bye week.
The Falcons have a number of must-play fantasy options, most notably Turner, White and Gonzalez. Ryan is not among the most consistent fantasy QBs in the league, but is unlikely to sink your team either. Snelling looks like he'll get enough touches to merit a flex play. Bryant (7-8 FG) and a playmaking Atlanta defense also look like solid starts this week.
The 49ers have to be the best 0-3 team in football, which might not be saying much, though there's no reason this talented club can't get it together and win the weak NFC West when all is said and done. It looked like they were on track to doing that when they nearly upset the Saints two weeks ago, but the short- week blowout the team suffered in Kansas City flew in the face of that contention. Following an attention-grabbing coordinator change, expect the Niners to look more like the team that faced the Saints this week, but don't expect it to translate to a win. Atlanta is a couple of victories away from calling itself a bona fide Super Bowl contender, and even if there is a slight letdown after the big win in New Orleans, this team isn't going to let the Niners come in and score a road win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 26, 49ers 24
09/30 17:48:18 ET
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