ReFo: Falcons @ 49ers, Week 16
Back when ESPN selected this game for their final Monday Night Football broadcast of the season I’m sure they expected, as many would have, that they would be getting a pivotal game that would have a say in deciding homefield advantage through the NFC playoffs. Though the Falcons’ precipitous decline this season robbed the game of playoff implications on both sides, ESPN and everyone associated with the San Francisco 49ers got a dramatic finale as they bade farewell (barring an unexpected home playoff game) to their legendary stadium.
The 49ers appeared to have the game well in hand but twice in the second half they allowed the Falcons to immediately close 10-point leads to three points to keep nerves on end to the very end. They saw it out in dramatic fashion with a combination of great defensive effort giving NaVorro Bowman the accolade of having closed out this famous old stadium. Bowman peeled out from the middle of the field intercept a pass broken up by an excellent jump from Tramaine Brock and returned it 89 yards for a score that clinched victory and with it the 49ers third straight playoff appearance.
For the Falcons the opportunity was there for a small measure of revenge for their home playoff defeat to the 49ers back in January. Their season is long lost but after Bowman spurned the opportunity to recover the Falcons’ onside kick — smartly bought in by Jason Snelling before it could bobble out of bounds — they had the chance to sling a wrench into NFC playoff picture and put destiny into everyone’s own hands. That wasn’t how this script was written, but the Falcons do have one more chance to play spoiler as they get Carolina at home on Sunday before heading into a pivotal offseason.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
Rough Day Defending the Edge
The 49ers’ ground game has put better run defenses than the Falcons to the sword so it was no surprise to see the Falcons exploited particularly off tackle and off end where the 49ers’ power and option games come into their own with their ability to seal the edge and bring blockers round the corner to pick up yards in solid chunks. On the edge, Peria Jerry (-2.5 run defense) and Malliciah Goodman (-2.6 run defense) had their struggles coping with the 49ers’ down blocks giving ground inside which allowed the 49ers more space to get around the edge and get onto the linebackers, especially Paul Worrilow who earned his worst run defense grade of the season. Of their 12 outside carries last night the 49ers went off right end 10 times for 104 yards and a touchdown with 4 yards per carry coming before first contact.
A Reminder from Ryan and White
One of the key Falcons either struck down or slowed by injury this season Roddy White put in one of his best games of the season against a top defense bound for the playoffs last night. The focal point of the Atlanta passing attack, White hauled in 12 of his 15 targets with no drops for 141 yards and a score. Early on he was principally working short passes building a rhythm with Matt Ryan on rollouts in particular but showed that he is more than just a chain mover as he changed it up quickly on consecutive plays midway through the second quarter.
First hitting on an intermediate target in front of Tramaine Brock and in between the linebackers to collect 18 yards on third-and-9 White followed that up a play later getting in behind Eric Reid on a post route and locating the ball as it came in from Ryan where Reid couldn’t to bring the Falcons back within three for the first time in the final stanza. Ryan benefitted with from improved pass protection (pressured on only 15 of 49 drop-backs) to keep the chains moving and take his shots when they were there. It wasn’t a winning effort but this was just a reminder as the season comes to a close that Ryan, White and the rest of the Atlanta passing attack shouldn’t be written off or forgotten.
Quiet Night for Trufant
Just about the most we saw of Desmond Trufant last night was a late hit he put on Anquan Boldin on the back side of a run play that Jon Gruden highlighted in his commentary towards the end of the third quarter. Whether he did it out of boredom or if he simply saw the opportunity with a physical receiver jogging through a play is up for debate, but Trufant certainly wasn’t a focal point for the 49ers’ offense.
They did follow that hit up immediately with one of only two targets to Trufant on the night with Boldin cutting away (and through a tackle from Stephen Nicholas) on a quick screen for a first down to close out the quarter. Facing the brunt of the 49ers’ passing attack were the Falcons’ two Roberts (Alford and McClain) who each surrendered close to 70 yards receiving with McClain at least popping up with a pass defense to get a play on the positive side of the ledger. Those two targets tied for Trufant’s fewest targets in a single game this season, all three of which have now come on the road.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Gore and Line Lead the Way
After a touchdown-less first half, the 49ers came out throwing in the second to get back on terms with the Falcons on the third quarter’s opening drive but the real control and driving force to their offense was, as ever, provided by the ground game. Up front the offensive line was close to its best particularly on the inside where Jonathan Goodwin (+3.0 run defense) and the guards either side of him (Mike Iupati and Alex Boone) had the measure of the Falcons’ run defense in-line, at the second level and pulling out to the edge.
They were ably aided by Will Tukuafu (+2.5 run block) and Anthony Dixon (+1.0 run block) who split the duties filling in for the injured Bruce Miller at fullback. All of this set the table for Frank Gore to keep the ground game and the offense as a whole ticking over with consistent gains before he capitalized on Kendall Hunter’s breakaway for his only score of the game. That set up the 49ers with a 10- point lead that they (just about) didn’t surrender the rest of the way.
Bowman Closes it Out
His heads up, opportunistic play closed out the game but in combination with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman was an ever-present force at the heart of the San Francisco defense, especially against the run. The dynamic duo combined to notch 11 stops (eight for Willis) with both earning a +1.3 run defense grade. Against the run it wasn’t complete domination with Falcons’ linemen and backs able to dig out some blocks against Bowman in the ground game but he gave as good as he got there in a solid display next to the extremely active Willis.
In coverage, though he surrendered five completions on five targets, he only gave up eight yards after the catch to prevent Tony Gonzalez or the Falcons’ running backs from gaining any extra. Bowman capped off his strong display with a moment of effort and opportunism that 49ers fans will never forget and sent the 49ers back to the postseason where they will see to unfinished business from the last two years.
Crabtree Emphasizes the Looming Threat of the 49ers
There can be no doubt that even considering the injuries that they have had to endure on offense this year’s San Francisco 49ers have barely scraped the surface of the brutally efficient team that they were a year ago. In spite of that they have been good enough to keep winning while they try to find their best form and are picking up timely wins and timely plays to really turn up the heat on the rest of the NFC.
The return of Michael Crabtree emphasizes that threat and he topped 100 yards for the first time since his Week 13 return in large part thanks to converting an intermediate catch into a long gain, a feature of the performances that made him the form wide receiver over the second half of last season and the centerpiece of the San Francisco passing game. Now paired with the physicality of Anquan Boldin on the opposite side of the formation this could just be the start of Crabtree rounding into the sort of form that will even more make the 49ers a team that no one wants to face in the NFC playoffs.
– Second year guard Harland Gunn featured for the Falcons for the second week in a row (46 snaps) earning a +1.2 overall grade.
– Bowman and Ahmad Brooks each missed two tackles last night taking their season total to a dozen each.
– Undrafted free agent Joplo Bartu set a season- (and career-) high with five defensive stops last night, earning a +1.3 run defense grade.
PFF Game Ball
While NaVorro Bowman walks away with the moment that everyone will remember from this final game at Candlestick Park it was Frank Gore who was the stability and driving force that setup the 49ers’ win.
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