This is a statement game. I hate sports cliches, but they are cliches for a reason and none are more evident for the Atlanta Falcons this week against the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons must head to SF to face a tough-minded team that plays hard and with passion, and which is coming off a 35-0 whooping of the Rams.
Its been two weeks since the Falcons were outcoached, outplayed and out-schemed at Gillette Stadium after a promising 2-0 start over the Dolphins and Panthers. In that game, I learned that Mike Smith is human and can make mistakes as evidenced by his poor game planning and questionable defensive ideology in containing the potent Patriots offense.
This game will define both teams, as the Niners look to improve on Shaun Hill's undefeated record at home, and the Falcons look to start a brutal stretch of games on the right foot.
Atlanta has focused during the bye week on their running game and getting Michael Turner back to his '08 form. They will need it facing a tough linebacking core led by Patrick Willis, a stud of a linebacker and centerpiece of their defense.
Turner's output so far in rushing yardage each game has been 65, 105 and 56, and he's averaging one whole yard less per carry at 3.5 yards a clip. Whether from a lack of execution, or poor choices by the Burner, the Falcons must get the ground game going in order to establish the balance they had a year ago.
Led by McClure during the bye week, the O-line has reviewed all the running plays from this season and refocused on execution and form. This O-line will be tested against a very tough 3-4 front seven, and a team that is second in the league in points allowed and fourth against the run.
A plus for the Falcons is that they get backup running back Jerious Norwood back. Norwood looked to be building an excellent '09 campaign until concussions sidelined him.
Matt Ryan has yet to get started partially due to the lack of the running game, but also due to a overall lack of downfield plays. With Tony Gonzalez in the middle, and Jenkins and White on the outside, I believe the Falcons will take quite a few shots downfield to White or Jenkins, given the almost certain double team that Gonzalez will command. Matt must be sharp and accurate on these throws and connect on a few to hopefully loosen the defense and back them up from the line of scrimmage.
I am not sure what to make of this Niner offense, to be brutally frank with you. I have watched them on offense all year so far (I needed some No-Doze a few times) and am still not sure what kind of team will show up this Sunday.
Will it be the team that shredded a Seahawk defense? Or the one that struggled against the 29th-ranked defense of the Rams? This is a team that is 15th on the ground in the league, but they are missing their star running back Frank Gore for the second week in a row while he nurses a ankle injury.
While their running game has looked good on paper thus far, this is also a team that, minus Gore's two long runs against the Seahawks, averages 2.6 yards per carry. Their running backs also lead the league in runs resulting in zero or negative yards.
It will be interesting to see them face a Falcon defensive line that has been questionable against the run, to say the least. Peria Jerry is out for the season, and they worked out 3 DL during the off week. To state the obvious, the Niners will come out looking to establish the run, and the Falcons must stop them if they hope to have any success.
Vernon Davis seems to have "broken out" this season, and by that term I mean actually showing up on the scorecard. He is a high draft pick that the team has hoped would develop into a playmaker, and he's beginning to show his potential. The Falcons must show that they can contain him and cover him, especially against the Niner seam routes.
The Niner offensive line has not played well this season, and was recently evaluated by Coach Mike Singletary this week. He did not do any favors for starting guards Richal and Baas, but noted that the team was pleased that the rest of the line, notably Heitmann, has been playing and improving well.
Shaun Hill will never confuse anyone with Steve Young, but he is a serviceable game manager and has proven he can win in this league. The Falcons must stop the run to make the game one-dimensional and put the ball into Hills hands to win.
Boy, has this side of the ball taken a beating from fans and media alike. After a promising showing against the Dolphins, the Falcons took a step back against the Panthers and damn near fell on their face against the Patriots.
The interior of the line looked to be getting manhandled against the Patriots, and that does not fare well for the Birds, as they will face the run early and often against the Niners. Jimmy Raye loves to run the ball, and dont be surprised if you see the same WR motion dive play at least 15 times this game.
The much-maligned secondary for the Falcons has been bolstered recently with the additions of Tye Hill and Brian Williams. Hill is said to be coming up to speed on the playbook and what the coaching staff is asking of him.
It will be interesting to see how much he plays this Sunday. Houston is still a quality NFL-caliber corner if he could just get over his nagging confidence issues. Second-year man Thomas DeCoud looks to be coming into his own, and with rookie second-round pick William Moore healthy, I am anxious to see how they fare against the Niners.
The Falcons linebackers are the strength of the team, led by Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson, these guys figure to play heavily into stopping the Niners offense. The Falcons interior defensive linemen must step up this game and cannot afford to get pushed back off the line of scrimmage against this power running team.
Yet another 3-4 defense for the Falcons to face, and thus far, they havent fared well against it. With a linebacking core head up by Willis and Spikes, this team knows how to fly to the ball and hit the ball carrier with reckless abandon. Mike Singletary has these guys playing out of their mind, and it has showed on Sundays.
Nate Clements and Spencer will be assigned to stop the Falcon wideouts, and the Niners must assign at least two bodies to Gonzalez, who was kept quiet against the Patriots' bracket defense. Matt Ryan does an excellent job distributing the football, so it wont be easy to just key on a few players.
These Niner defenders are an oppurtunistic bunch, so the Falcons must focus and take care of the football on the road.
This Niner defense is ranked top ten or better in every major statisical category on defense, and I dont expect much of a dropoff against the Falcons. This game will be a drag-out, knock-down slugfest and, after all is said and done, these two teams will make two different statements.
I'm looking forward to a tremendous game, and a 3-1 record on Monday for the Dirty Birds.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Niners 21