Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer shares some pointers related to this week's game against the Falcons.
Head coach Bobby Petrino took over this Atlanta team this off-season and wanted to see a wide open passing attack with multiple formations and three, four, and five receiver sets, but he didn't have a lot of productivity at the wide receiver position early on. He's also lost two opening day starters at the offensive tackle position. So what he has to do is employ more two tight end sets to protect their quarterback, Joey Harrington who isn't that mobile. He has also had to run two backs in the backfield to help with protection, which changes their passing attack. Since they are coming off a bye week, there is a possibility of them being able to get back to the multiple receiver sets, so it will be interesting to see if they make that adjustment or not against the 49ers this week.
The Falcons offensive line has given up a lot of sacks. Unfortunately so have the 49ers as both teams are among the league leaders in allowing sacks. Atlanta has had their fair share of problems with injuries to three of their five starters. They've had a number of different lineups in there and that's made it difficult to get any cohesion or consistency.
On the flip side, the 49ers haven't had much success with their pass rush lately. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is trying everything he can because the four man rush isn't getting there. He is trying cornerback blitzes, strong safety blitzes, linebacker blitzes, but there has not been enough pressure lately. If ever there was a week to beef up the pressure against the quarterback, it would be against Atlanta.
The Falcons have one of the best in tight end Alge Crumpler, who is hobbled right now with a knee/ankle injury and he hasn't had his typical production. Coming off a bye, I anticipate him being healthier. The tight end position had been hurting the 49ers defense, but they did a good job containing Eric Johnson of the Saints last week. I would expect that to continue this week.
As far as receivers go, Roddy White has finally started to be the guy they expected when they drafted him a few years ago. He is averaging 16.1 yards a catch with 33 catches. He had been a guy who had dropped a lot of passes before, but he now has a couple 100 yard receiving games, so it looks like he is getting over that hurdle. That's going to be a tough match up as he is their best receiver. Joe Horn has also been a very productive receiver in his 12 year career going to the Pro Bowl four times since 2000. Michael Jenkins plays the slot for them, and if the Falcons can get those tackle positions solidified and get good protection for Joey Harrington, you will see a lot of three receiver sets.
The Falcons running game hasn't been very effective this year. They are 25th in the league right now in rushing. Jerious Norwood, their backup, is averaging only six carries a game and has had some huge runs. Without him, they might be the worst in the NFL. They relied on Michael Vick to in the past to add another element for them in the run game. There were many games where Vick rushed for over 100 yards. The Falcons led the league in rushing the last three seasons. So to go from leading the league to 25th is a huge drop off. They aren't getting production from Warrick Dunn, who had offseason back surgery. Norwood has a 5.8 average yards per carry, but he only gets in there for a change of pace. This is a different run scheme than in the past when Atlanta used zone blocking. Now they are going back to more of a man blocking scheme and it just isn't working. You have the personnel set up for a certain scheme and when a new coach comes in and changes the scheme, it's up to the players to adapt or they have to get new players, and that's kind of what the Falcons are suffering from right now.
Now on to the 49ers offense against this Falcons defense. Up front the Falcons are not getting the kind of pressure they would like with only 9 sacks on the year. They have a rookie starter in defensive tackle Trey Lewis, and a rookie starter at defensive end in Jamaal Andersen who was their first round draft pick. They lost their best tackler in Grady Jackson when Coach Petrino decided to let him go the week before the bye. Lewis has taken his place and I think that's a huge drop off for Atlanta. Robert Coleman had been playing hurt and I'm not sure if he will be back for the game
I think the 49ers need to run the ball up the gut. John Abraham is their best pass rusher with five of their nine sacks, but he isn't very good against the run. The Falcons are ranked 23rd against the run and they just cut loose their best run starter in Jackson, so I would expect the 49ers to try to exploit that.
I think the reason Frank Gore's productivity fell off last week was a product of falling behind early. The Falcons offense is not an explosive offense and they don't have a great defense. If anything, this should remain a pretty tight game throughout. If that's the case, Frank should be able to continue to run the football. He will be playing on a turf surface though, which is always hard on a hurt ankle as Frank has right now.
I thought Adam Snyder, who started at left tackle for an injured Jonas Jennings, played very well last week and the 49ers offensive line as a whole did a good job of getting Alex Smith protection. Part of that was a product of the Saints only bringing four pass rushers and not overloading it with six. A lot of the teams the 49ers have faced have brought six pass rushers and I would expect the 49ers to see that again this week with five and six man blitzes from Atlanta.
Speaking of Alex, he was definitely playing with pain and it looked like it was affecting him in the first half, but interestingly enough, the more hits he took the more his resolve seemed to have strengthened. If anything, that game could go a long way as far as being a spring board for Alex becoming a leader. There's nothing more admired in an NFL locker room than toughness. For him to play throughout that entire game with what was a very tender shoulder showed a lot of courage. Guys in that locker room truly admire that.
As far as match ups, the 49ers receivers haven't been able to exploit anyone yet consistently. That's something that will have to change for the 49ers to be successful. I thought Vernon Davis not only played well last week against the Saints, but he also showed a lot of maturity in not celebrating when he made the touchdown catch when the game was already out of reach. He will be matched up a lot this game against a 12 year veteran in Lawyer Milloy. With Milloy and the Falcons, unlike most teams, the free and strong safeties are interchangeable but that won't be the case this week as Milloy will be spending a lot of time in the box allowing free safety Chris Crocker to play the deep third.
The Falcons have one of the best cover corners in DeAngelo Hall, but his play has dropped off. He was fined 100,000 dollars earlier this year when he had a sideline argument with Coach Petrino, and that kind of coincided with a drop in his play. Basically what sparked the argument was that he was flagged three times in one series and when he came off the field Petrino and the defensive backs coach rightfully wanted to talk to him. Hall didn't take to their words too kindly.
The latest Hall incident occurred during the bye week when Petrino let go of Jackson, who was one of their best linemen when it came to stopping the run and was one of the most liked guys in the locker room. Hall responded by popping off in the papers. Still, he's a heck of a corner.
I expect Atlanta to start a rookie at the other corner in Chris Houston. There was a battle in training camp between Houston and veteran cornerback Lewis Sanders that Sanders won. When Hall was out in week five, Lewis started in his place with Houston starting at the right corner. Houston again started in their last game against the Saints and that's who I expect will start again on Sunday.
On to special teams… Kicker Morten Andersen bailed them out last year. He was already retired and had retired four times already but he returned to Atlanta and was 20 of 23 last year. He's a 47 year old man and nothing really ever phases him. He's 12 of 15 on the year, and that's obviously better than what the 49ers faced last week in Olindo Mare. Andersen is still showing he has great leg strength, and personally I think it's kind of fun to watch a 47 year old go out there and still get it done.
This is an important game for the 49ers because they've got to pull out of this slump. You've got two teams that desperately need a win and the 49ers need to go out and show that they want it more.