The San Francisco 49ers enter the final stretch of the 2019 season that kicks off with a Week 15 match against the 4-9 Atlanta Falcons. What makes this game all the more important for San Francisco is the opportunity to clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Taking into account what's all at stake in the final three weeks of the season, Fox Sports analyst and former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston previews San Francisco's contest against Atlanta and the keys to coming out on top on Sunday.
No one might have expected Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints to have been a slugfest between two of the top teams in the NFC. Coming off of that triumphant win in the Superdome, what was your biggest takeaway from the game, and did this teach you anything new heading into the tail end of the season?
Johnston: They became a complete team. I think people have been waiting for Jimmy Garoppolo to have that type of game in a big moment. I think he has proven earlier in the season that he's quite capable of lifting the team up and grinding out a victory using the passing game against lesser opponents. But to do that, in New Orleans against Drew Brees, against a very good defense, I think is something that demonstrates to everybody else in the NFL that, yeah we have to respect that San Francisco run game, that's how everything starts, but San Francisco just sent a message to everybody else. We can throw the ball really well too against a good defense on the road in a very tough environment so I think that's the biggest thing and now as a young quarterback growing up and moving through your career in the NFL, you want to be able to have all these experiences and be able to check some boxes and I think Garoppolo had the opportunity to check a pretty big box on Sunday. That gets a lot of confidence for his teammates, as they move forward.
Coming out of that gauntlet of playoff-caliber matchups against the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Saints, is there a specific 49ers player that has taken you by surprise over the last few weeks?
Johnston: Raheem Mostert. I think we heard a lot about Matt Breida. They talked about the "hot hand" philosophy that Kyle Shanahan will go with in the running game. As he cycles through, once somebody starts to really find their flow that game and understands what the matchup in the run game is and starts to see it maybe a little bit better. But you lean on that guy a little bit so I think Raheem has done a really nice job with his opportunity with Breida out of the lineup. And I think we're seeing that with a lot of the young guys this season with the 49ers. To me the biggest thing they've done is the way they've weathered the injury storm. They've had injuries at key positions I don't know how many teams in the NFL could lose both of their starting tackles and then continue to win football games and that's exactly what the 49ers have done earlier this season. To lose Kyle Juszczyk, to lose George Kittle. They lost key players on the offensive side of the ball and now the defensive side of the ball is getting beat up they lose their center, and they just never lose track of what they're doing. It's a next man up philosophy. It's who's our opponent and let's focus on, the things that are within our control. So I think the leadership from the top has been outstanding for them.
There's much talk about Week 15 potentially being a "trap" game for the 49ers, given the Falcons sub .500 record. However, Atlanta has performed well since coming off of their Bye, going 3-2 since Week 8. Is there a Falcons player the 49ers can not afford to overlook on Sunday?
Johnston: Julio Jones has the ability to take over a game. With a hamstring injury to Richard Sherman, what impact will that have? You've got Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon who are going to be out there, but Julio was one of those guys that can take over a game. Without Calvin Ridley, maybe that helps San Francisco with how they're going to play that situation. You can always roll a safety that way or add some coverage to Julio's side and make one of these younger guys stand up and try and beat you. What a lot of teams will do is, "who's the one person that we have to stop?" "Who's the one person that we can't let us let beat us this Sunday." I think for the 49ers, that would probably be almost a consensus that it's Julio Jones and make sure he doesn't have a big afternoon.
Continuing off of the Falcons recent surge, is there a 49ers position group that must keep their foot on the gas against this sneaky Falcons team?
Johnston: I'm interested to see what the bounce back is from the defense. Kyle said that they didn't have their best game, but they were also playing in a tough environment against a future Hall of Famer who got off to a great start. So that kind of puts you behind the eight ball. Fortunately, the offense was able to keep pace and lift up the complementary component last Sunday. So what does Robert Saleh's group do this week? Do they take it personally? The Falcons have an offensive line that has struggled a bit during the course of the year, but they seemed to play better last week with Chris Lindstrom back in the lineup. And Matt Ryan's the quarterback. He just eclipsed 50,000 yards last week for his career in the NFL. Not many guys have done that so you got a good quarterback again. So how does that defense respond, I'm interested to see that component of this matchup.
Are there some things that the Falcons are doing defensively that the 49ers need to be aware of going into Sunday?
Johnston: They're an athletic group that runs to the ball well. Damontae Kazee had a big game last week. In regards to takeaways, he forced three turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble on special teams. They've got two good edge rushers. They spent first round picks on Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, so they have the ability to pressure you from the edges. And then they have Grady Jarrett inside and Deion Jones is a pretty unique athletic middle linebacker. So they're solid. They've gotten better since their Bye. I don't think they were playing well early in the year, for whatever reason, but there's been some changes made and it seems like Atlanta is playing their best football, as a team. But on the defensive side of the ball, they're probably playing their best football at this point.
As a former fullback, spending 11 years in the NFL with the Cowboys, what makes a guy like Kyle Juszczyk so important to Kyle Shanahan's offense?
Johnston: He gives you the ability to go into the huddle and the defense really doesn't know what to expect. The versatility that he brings to the position, you can line up and you can run power run. You can run misdirection. You can break the huddle and Kyle can move outside of formation and get into the slot and create a matchup issue in the passing game. He's a great element in the screen game. He has the ability to elite block, there's not much that Juszczyk can't do and you can see why that was one of the first players that Shanahan targeted in free agency when he got the opportunity in San Francisco. He's really a perfect fit for what Shanahan does offensively, in that fullback position.