In the week following Monday's game, the 49ers face the playoff-contending Arizona Cardinals, but that matchup won’t matter, at least in terms of clinching a playoff spot, if the Niners beat the Falcons. (It will have playoff seeding implications, however.)
In short, the 49ers have no need to look past this game.
With the extra time to prepare for their matchup on Monday Night Football, to what will the 49ers turn their focus? They are facing one of the worst defenses in the NFL, both in terms of yards allowed and points allowed. In addition, the Falcons rank 22nd in the NFL in points scored.
So, with all of Atlanta's deficiencies, how can the 49ers best ensure that they eliminate any chance of an upset? Here are three keys to a 49ers victory on Monday.
Continued Success Against the Pass
The Falcons’ only strength, and thus one of their only chances of competing on Monday, lies in their passing game. Despite the team’s 4-10 record, Matt Ryan is still a solid quarterback. He has somehow compiled strong numbers (22 TDs, 3,887 yards, 66.4 percent completion rate, 88.9 rating) with the cards he has been dealt, which include injuries to his top two wide receivers and a substandard offensive line.
However, turnovers have been Ryan’s Achilles' heel this year, with his 14 interceptions ranking seventh in the NFL. As a team, Atlanta has committed the fifth-most turnovers in the NFC, so the problem extends beyond Ryan.
This bodes well for the Niners, as their defense ranks eighth in the NFL in takeaways. One of the primary explanations for this is San Francisco’s secondary, which has stepped up all season.
Rookie free safety Eric Reid (64 tackles, 10 pass deflections, four interceptions) has been particularly impressive, showing the poise of a veteran. Cornerback Tramaine Brock has picked off four passes this year as well, a total that ranks seventh in the NFL.
The Niners’ success at forcing turnovers, combined with Ryan’s penchant for committing them, both point toward another dominant performance from San Francisco’s secondary, and the defense as a whole.
Run the Ball Down Atlanta’s Throat
The 49ers have proved that their offensive strength lies in their run game, and that should prove to be an advantage come Monday.
The Falcons are 29th in the NFL in stopping the run, surrendering 131.4 rushing yards per game. Frank Gore has been heating up (196 yards in Weeks 14 and 15), but the 49ers can use this matchup to allow him to really hit the ground running heading into Week 17’s tough matchup against the Cardinals’ top-ranked run defense.
Even with his recent success, Gore has undeniably struggled in the season’s second half. His 110 rushing yards against Seattle constituted his first 100-yard game since Oct. 13 against the Cardinals. In addition, his performance against Tampa Bay, while consisting of a nice rushing total (86 yards), proved to be Gore’s fourth game under four yards per carry in his past five games.
In short, Gore needs to pick it up a bit.
The 49ers will need him in the playoffs, and there is no better way to maximize his chances of playoff success than to finish the regular season with some momentum. The 49ers should take advantage of the Falcons’ defensive struggles against the run by giving Gore plenty of chances to do what he does best.
Take Advantage of the Falcons Secondary
While the Niners should use Frank Gore to a great extent, Colin Kaepernick must also be sure that he exploits the Falcons' lackluster secondary when he gets his opportunities.
Like Gore, but to a larger extent, Kaepernick has had quite a few performances that leave something to be desired this year. Also like Gore, the Niners need Kap to go into the playoffs fresh off a couple of solid performances.
The Falcons secondary's main weakness is the rookie safety, Zeke Motta, who lacks instinct and played very poorly last week, according to Dave Choate of SB Nation. The Falcons do expect safety Thomas DeCoud to return from a concussion on Monday, but it's anyone's guess as to how he will play in his first game back.
Asante Samuel is also always a threat as a cornerback, but he has started only 10 games this year, recording one interception. He is far from the player he used to be.
Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant has played exceptionally well, but he will be left with the tough task of covering Michael Crabtree. Even if he is able to shut down the 49ers' top wide receiver, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis should have no trouble exploiting the rest of the Falcons defense.
Don't forget, Monday's game is also the final game to be played at Candlestick. If that isn't motivation to win, I don't know what is.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.
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