The San Francisco 49ers (7-6) will host the Atlanta Falcons (6-7) Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in a matchup with playoff implications. A loss on Sunday would allow Atlanta to leapfrog the 49ers in the playoff standings and own the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over them. Atlanta has been a much better road team, with five of their six wins this season coming away from home.
The most recent matchup between the two clubs occurred during week 15 of the 2019 season at Levi’s Stadium. Atlanta pulled off the upset with a last second touchdown throw from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. That loss nearly cost San Francisco the NFC West championship and home field advantage in the playoffs.
Here are five questions to watch for on Sunday:
1. Can Jimmy Garoppolo stay hot?
After starting the season 2-4, San Francisco has rebounded to win five of its last seven. During that time, the 49ers’ passing game, led by Jimmy Garoppolo, has been among the best in the NFL. Garoppolo has averaged 262 yards per game with 11 touchdowns to only four interceptions while completing 68 percent of his pass attempts.
Garoppolo will be facing an Atlanta defense, which has allowed over 249 yards per game on the road this season.
After being sacked five times against Cincinnati, the veteran quarterback should be able to find more time to throw this week. Atlanta has struggled with rushing the passer all season, recording the fewest sacks in the league with only 16.
One other item to keep an eye on Sunday: Teams have found success against Atlanta with the screen game. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings have proven to be very good with this, and we could see several screens from the 49ers, especially if the running game struggles.
2. Can the 49ers find consistency in the running game?
Over the last two weeks, the 49ers rushing attack has been able to manage only 171 yards combined. For some teams, this wouldn’t be bad. But this is the lowest total in back-to-back weeks for San Francisco this season.
While Atlanta has struggled against the pass this season, they have done a good job of stopping the run. The Falcons come into this game tied for the 7th best rushing defense on the road, allowing only 3.9 yards per rush attempt. One of the teams tied with Atlanta is Green Bay. You may remember how the 49ers struggled to get their running game moving in that contest back in week three.
The player to watch for in this matchup is Grady Jarrett. The Falcons defensive tackle is having a very strong year with 44 tackles, including three for loss and 11 hits on the quarterback. Alex Mack, Daniel Brunskill and Laken Tomlinson will have their hands full in the middle.
3. Will the 49ers defense be able to limit Cordarrelle Patterson?
This game will feature two teams with wide receivers that also receive snaps as running backs.
49ers fans have become accustomed to seeing Deebo Samuel lined up in the backfield. Atlanta does the same thing with Cordarrelle Patterson, with the only difference being the percentage of snaps Patterson takes in the backfield.
While Samuel has been in the backfield for only a handful of snaps each week, Patterson spends most of his time there. This strategy has led to Patterson being Atlanta’s leading rusher with 547 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
When Patterson isn’t beating opponents on the ground, he is beating them with his hands. Patterson is second among Falcon’s receivers with 519 yards and five touchdowns on 46 receptions.
It will be a long day for San Francisco’s defense if they are not able to keep Patterson in check.
4. Will the San Francisco defense get to Matt Ryan?
Kyle Shanahan is very familiar with Matt Ryan from his time as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. Shanahan was asked this week where Ryan is at right now with his game and what his biggest concern is with trying to defend him.
“I just know what Matt is capable of. You can still see how well he is playing on third down. I think that’s the area that they’re the best in and it starts with him. It doesn’t matter how good you block people, if someone’s open, he’s going to hit them,” answered Shanahan. “So, you have to make sure you cover people if you want to get to them and Matt’s a hell of a quarterback. I still think he’s playing at a high level.”
Ryan has been able to top 200 yards passing in a game only three times since losing top receiver Calvin Ridley who left the team following week five to address mental health issues.
Aside from the Cordarrelle Patterson, Ryan’s top two targets have been rookie tight end Kyle Pitts and Russell Gage.
San Francisco’s defense will likely be without linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair who is doubtful with an elbow strain suffered against Cincinnati. The loss of Al-Shaair could provide Ryan an advantage if San Francisco tries to match linebackers on Patterson and Pitts.
Gage has come on strong in recent weeks. Over the last four weeks the wideout has been able to take advantage of zone coverage, to more than double his productivity with 26 receptions for 305 yards and one touchdown.
If the 49ers try to sit in zone coverage like they did last week Ryan could make them pay unless San Francisco’s pass rush can get to him. This is another area in which Atlanta has excelled away from home. Atlanta’s pass protection has allowed only 1.3 sacks per game on the road this season, tied for best in the NFL.
5. Can San Francisco hold on to the ball?
The ability to hold on to the ball has proven to be the best indicator of success for San Francisco this season. When San Francisco wins the turnover battle, they are 5-0. That drops to 1-2 if they have as many turnovers as takeaways and 1-4 if they have more turnovers than their opponents.
This could play to the 49ers favor on Sunday. Atlanta has turned the ball over in 10 of their 13 games this season, including six of seven road games, and have won the turnover battle only three times.
49ers 27 Falcons 21