Falcons vs. 49ers: Takeaways from Atlanta's 34-24 Loss to San Francisco

Aaron Freeman@falcfansContributor IDecember 24, 2013

Falcons vs. 49ers: Takeaways from Atlanta's 34-24 Loss to San Francisco

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    The Atlanta Falcons dropped another heartbreaker to the San Francisco 49ers with a 34-24 loss in potentially the final game played at Candlestick Park.

    The Falcons had a strong first half going up 10-3 at the midpoint but then allowed 17 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters. But the Falcons didn't give up and were able to close the game to 27-24 in the final minutes.

    With Atlanta looking for the go-ahead score, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman picked off a tipped ball and took it 89 yards for a pick-six with less than two minutes remaining in the game, sealing the win for San Francisco.

    The Falcons record falls to 4-11 as they are set to return to the Georgia Dome next week to take on the Carolina Panthers. They will be looking ahead to close out the season strongly by building on the positives showed against the 49ers and trying to correct the negatives.

Third Quarter Kills Falcons' Momentum

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    The Falcons were able to take advantage of a 49ers team that looked anything but sharp during the first half and built a 10-3 halftime lead.

    But things turned sour for the Falcons in the third quarter with a pair of quick possessions that resulted in just seven offensive plays. Meanwhile, the 49ers had little trouble scoring as both of their possessions resulted in points to push the lead to 13-10 by the end of the third quarter.

    In fact, every time the 49ers offense took the field in the second half, they managed to score points. The Falcons' inability to finish what looked to be a good start made the difference in the game.

    That inability to generate points in the third quarter has plagued the Falcons throughout the 2013 season. Their 49 points in the third quarter ranks the second-lowest of any team in the league this year, only outpacing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Falcons Dial Up Deep Pass

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    The Falcons were able to show off their deep passing with two big plays to Roddy White. The latter of which being a 39-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, helping kick off their attempted comeback.

    On the play prior, Matt Ryan hit White on a 18-yard throw on a 3rd-and-9 to put the team in 49er territory.

    The long ball hasn't been a huge component of the Falcons offense. Per Pro Football Focus, Ryan entered Monday dead last in the league in terms of percentage of passes attempted over 20 yards. That ranking isn't likely to change considering that Ryan's first deep shot to White didn't occur until there was 9:20 left on the game clock. At that point, he had already thrown the ball 28 times against the 49ers.

    The Falcons' inability to dial up big plays in their offense this year has been a major cause of their offensive struggles. It will be a good sign to see the team try to take more measured shots downfield much earlier in next week's game against the Carolina Panthers.

White Looks Like His Old Self

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    While Monday night's loss to the 49ers doesn't mark the first time Roddy White has played well this year, it did work as confirmation that White is starting to regain his former form.

    White led Falcons receivers with 12 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. He had been battling injuries throughout this year and not until his emergence with a 143-yard effort against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13 did White start playing like his normal Pro Bowl self.

    That continued on Monday night against a tough and physical 49ers secondary where White was able to generate both big plays and also move the chains several times.

    Reports earlier this season from NFL.com's Ian Rapoport indicated the Falcons were looking to lock up White to a new contract this offseason, and his ability to finish this season strongly will only make such a move a no-brainer for the Falcons as they strive to get their offense back on track in 2014.

Jackson Adds Physicality to the Offense

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    Falcons running back Steven Jackson's stat line won't look spectacular on paper, as he finished Monday's contest with just 53 yards rushing on 16 carries.

    But what he didn't provide in raw yardage, he added in physicality and attitude. Jackson ran hard and tough against a formidable 49ers front line. He paid for it at times, taking some big shots from Patrick Willis and Donte Whitner throughout the night. But he was able to dish out just as much punishment as he received.

    Jackson's lack of production is largely owed to his inability to break loose in the second half. After rushing for a promising 35 yards on nine carries in the first half, Jackson was held to 18 yards on seven carries in the second. The Falcons had to abandon the run for the most part in the fourth quarter thanks to their attempts to try and come back.

    After a report from National Football Post by Len Pasquarelli, that indicated it is very likely that Jackson will return to Atlanta in 2014, he was able to display the primary reason why that should happen against San Francisco. While not given the opportunity to be a finisher against on Monday, Jackson's physicality could prove an asset in more closely contested games that could come next season.

Harland Gunn Might Have a Future

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    The right guard position for the Atlanta Falcons has been a revolving door of players this year. But that door could be swinging shut as the team gave Harland Gunn extended looks against the 49ers, and he seemed to handle it well against a formidable front.

    The team has alternated Peter Konz and Garrett Reynolds there in recent weeks. After struggling at center, Konz has received the majority of snaps at right guard over the past month. But his play has only marginally improved at the new position.

    Gunn, an undrafted second-player who was signed by Atlanta off the New Orleans Saints practice squad last season, has managed to work his way into the lineup. That has been the story of this Falcons season at multiple positions with a number of young "no-name" players like Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Darius Johnson among others being asked to play significant roles for the Falcons.

    Gunn's play might merit a start to close out the season against the Panthers next week, and if he performs well against a tough Panthers defensive front, then he could be in the mix to win the starting job permanently in the offseason.

Tony Gonzalez Is Going out on a High Note

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    After reaffirming his resolve to retire this week according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, tight end Tony Gonzalez continues to show that he could keep playing if he so desired.

    Gonzalez caught eight passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in his final road game as an Atlanta Falcon. His ability to move the chains and make plays in the red zone were a key factor in the Falcons' ability to keep pace with the 49ers on Monday night. The 37-year old tight end continues to produce at a high level and be a key contributor on a struggling Falcons offense.

    In a night where ESPN's game coverage centered around bidding farewell to the 49ers' longtime home field of Candlestick Park, next week's coverage of the Falcons-Panthers game will likely involve the same in regard to Gonzalez. He will be suiting up for the final time in what has been a Hall of Fame career, and that deserves continued recognition.

Run Defense Gets Mauled When It Counts

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    One of the reasons why the Falcons couldn't pull off the improbable comeback was due to breakdowns in their run defense.

    After shrinking San Francisco's lead to 20-17 with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter, Atlanta's run defense gave out. The 49ers were able to drive the length of the field on six running plays, including a 45-yard run by Kendall Hunter that set up the 49ers near the goal line.

    Frank Gore started the drive with three carries for a combined total of 29 yards. Following Hunter's run, Gore then finished with a pair of runs inside the 2-yard line, including a one-yard score that pushed the lead to 27-17 with just five minutes remaining.

    The breakdown in run defense wasn't helped when the Falcons lost defensive tackle Corey Peters earlier in the game to an Achilles injury. The loss of Peters, assuming it keeps him from suiting up next week against the Carolina Panthers, will be a huge blow for the Falcons defense not only next week but also heading into 2014.

    Peters is potentially an unrestricted free agent, and whether or not his offseason will be full of a long rehab could have a significant impact on his future in Atlanta or elsewhere in the league.

Falcons' Secondary Struggles

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    The Falcons defense had too many breakdowns thanks in large part to poor play from their secondary.

    San Francisco receivers seemed to be open consistently throughout the Monday night matchup, and any incompletions seemed to be on erratic accuracy by quarterback Colin Kaepernick or dropped passes by receivers. Kaepernick struggled in the first half, completing just six of 11 passes for 69 yards. But he had little trouble connecting in the second half, completing seven of 10 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.

    There were just too many instances where Falcons cornerbacks and linebackers were seen chasing receivers like Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. The pair of receivers combined to catch 11 of Kaepernick's 13 passes for 172 of his 192 passing yards.

    If there is one positive for the Falcons secondary, it is that they were able to shut down Vernon Davis, who finished the game without a catch on three targets.

    Another is the play of rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, who saw very few targets go his way on the evening. It's another indicator of the strong rookie season Trufant has been having in 2013.

    The Falcons will have to pick things up next week against the Carolina Panthers on the back-end, although they should get a reprieve somewhat from the knee injury suffered by Steve Smith that is expected to keep him sidelined, per a report by John Breech of CBSSports.com.

Special Teams Gives Atlanta a Boost

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    The Falcons turned in another solid effort on special teams, providing them the necessary boost to play a close, competitive game against the 49ers.

    The signature play was the brilliant onside kick recovered by Jason Snelling near the end of the game. It potentially gave the Falcons a chance to take the lead late before NaVorro Bowman's game-sealing pick-six.

    Matt Bosher's onside kick skipped perfectly off the turf and went under the arms of Bowman, where Snelling made an excellent one-handed scoop before the ball went out of bounds. That set up the Falcons deep in 49er territory, starting the ensuing drive at the 30-yard line. 

    Bosher had an excellent performance, punting five times for an average of 48.8 yards with two kicks placed inside the 20-yard line.

    The Falcons also got a boost from their return game. Robert McClain had a nice 22-yard punt return that set up a scoring drive at the end of the first half with good field position. The Falcons were able to start that drive at the 49ers' 47-yard line before ultimately kicking a 35-yard field goal to take a 10-3 halftime lead.

    Then in the fourth quarter, Jacquizz Rodgers had a nice 30-yard return that set up the scoring drive that breathed new life in the Falcons offense in the second half. That drive ended in the 39-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White. 

    Overall, it was a good day for the Falcons special teams unit, and it's been a unit that has steadily grown into a strength with players like Bosher, McClain, Snelling and Rodgers readily making plays.