Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 9 of the 2015 regular season, starting with the big news that Blaine Gabbert will start at quarterback for San Francisco.
1st Down: What do you want to see from Gabbert?
@Joe_Fann: No fear
Gabbert faces a far different situation on Sunday than he did in his first stint as an NFL starter. As the 10th overall pick in 2011, the quarterback carried the weight of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise on his shoulders. At 2-6, the 49ers are in need of a spark, and Gabbert has the opportunity to provide it without the massive expectations he faced in Jacksonville. Take chances. Take shots downfield. Don't be gun shy. That's what I want to see from No. 2.
Gabbert is in his fifth NFL season, and he's had a new offensive coordinator each year. That constant upheaval isn't an excuse for his career to date, but it certainly hasn't helped. Gabbert signed a two-year deal with the 49ers this offseason in part because he wanted some semblance of consistency. Geep Chryst is a first-year offensive coordinator for the 49ers, but he was Gabbert's quarterback coach last season. So with nearly two of years of experience under Chryst, Gabbert should be more comfortable in this offense than any previous one. Let's see if that translates to the field.
@TaylorPrice: No turnovers
Take care of the football. It's simple, but if it happens, the 49ers will more than likely be in position to win this game. Gabbert threw 24 interceptions and lost eight fumbles during his three-year stint in Jacksonville. Sorry to bring up the past, but the goal here is for the new starting quarterback to showcase what he's learned during his time in San Francisco and not set up Atlanta with good field position. Ball security will be key in that equation.
2nd Down: Which 49ers RB are you most excited to watch?
@Joe_Fann: Kendall Gaskins
If it weren't for a deep group of running backs in training camp, Gaskins may have had a roster spot at the beginning of the season. Jim Tomsula touted the third-year 'back as a power runner. Gaskins also showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield last week against the St. Louis Rams with two catches for 17 yards. I'd also put my money on Gaskins getting any goal-line carries that may present themselves versus the Falcons. Like Gabbert, Gaskins has earned his opportunity. I'm excited to see what he does with it.
@TylerEmerick: Pierre Thomas
To borrow a term from Taylor on our 49ers Radio podcasts, Thomas is Reggie Bush adjace. The veteran running back is a threat in both the running and passing game with nifty moves at his disposal. In eight NFL seasons, all with the New Orleans Saints, Thomas has totaled 3,745 rushing yards and 2,608 receiving yards. He's scored 40 career touchdowns as well. The versatile weapon figures to take pressure off of Gabbert, especially against a Falcons team that Thomas has faced 16 times over the years.
@TaylorPrice: Bruce Miller
I'm going to sneak in this answer. I could say Shaun Draughn, who figures to be involved on Sunday, but I'm more interested to see how much the 49ers will utilize a fullback ahead of the three runners. Miller had a breakout performance in the passing game against the Baltimore Ravens with three catches for 89 yards. Miller hasn't caught a ball since. So let's see if Miller will be involved in the run game and as an outlet for Gabbert against the Falcons. That could help things out.
3rd Down: More important to slow Julio Jones or Devonta Freeman? @Joe_Fann: Freeman
My philosophy here is that you need to stop the man who will have the ball in his hand most often. That is Freeman. The running back has at least 19 touches in each of his last six games and as many as 35. The workhorse runner is also heavily involved in the passing game with at least five targets in six of Atlanta's eight contests this season. That means it will take a full team effort from the 49ers defense to keep Freeman in check. @TylerEmerick: Freeman
For the most part, the 49ers did an admirable job of keeping Todd Gurley in check last week. On 19 of his 20 carries, the rookie running back averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. Unfortunately for San Francisco, the outlier went for 71 yards and a touchdown. But while Gurley has seven carries of at least 20 yards in five games, Freeman has only recorded three such runs. The Atlanta ball-carrier isn't a home-run hitter, but he has consistently worn teams down. Freeman leads the NFL in first-down runs with 45 – nine more than second place Justin Forsett. The 49ers can't allow Freeman to control the game. @TaylorPrice: Jones
I agree with my colleagues that Freeman will get more touches, but I'd like to look at the topic a little differently. Jones is a dynamic weapon, especially on the deep ball. He leads the NFL with 892 receiving yards for a reason. The 49ers, meanwhile, allowed three big plays last week in St. Louis and they all resulted in touchdowns. Jones is capable of going off on a big play on any given snap. So there will be a big emphasis for Tramaine Brock and other cornerbacks to compete on deep throws from Matt Ryan. I'd much rather see Freeman have to earn every single inch in the run game than watch Jones make something happen through the air.
4th Down: The 49ers defender who will make a game-changing play is... @Joe_Fann: Jaquiski Tartt
Last week it was Tartt making the big play and I think the rookie safety makes it two weeks in a row against the Falcons. Tartt plays all over the field and has really impressed with his closing speed this season. Combine that with his ability to unleash a big hit, and you have the possibility for turnovers. As long as he can stay healthy, Tartt will be one of the marquee players to watch over the final eight games of the regular season.
@TylerEmerick: Arik Armstead
Although he only played 14 snaps against the Rams, Armstead made the most of his opportunities. He recorded two quarterback hits and forced a Benny Cunningham fumble that Ahmad Brooks returned for a touchdown. A facemask penalty on Brooks negated the score, but Armstead still showed well in breaking through the line of scrimmage and punching the ball loose. The Falcons have lost seven fumbles this year – tied for fifth-most in the league. This is the week Armstead breaks through.
Jones has been targeted 103 times in eight games. That means Brock, or whoever else is covering Jones, should expect to see around 13 pass attempts their way on Sunday. And I'm going to add that Brock has a little anti-Ryan karma in the works. He was the unknown commodity in NaVorro Bowman's "Pick at The 'Stick." He was the player who tipped Ryan's infamous pass, which led to Bowman's epic, interception return for a touchdown. Brock also intercepted a Hail Mary throw from Ryan for the last interception in Candlestick Park history. Perhaps this time, Brock records the 49ers first defensive touchdown of the season. That would be nice.