49ers’ 5 keys to beating Falcons: Stop Kyle Pitts, run to third straight Levi’s Stadium win

49ers’ 5 keys to beating Falcons: Stop Kyle Pitts, run to third straight Levi’s Stadium win

SANTA CLARA — Jimmy Garoppolo feels it on the practice fields, in the locker room, and in the team meetings.

It feels like playoff mode, baby.

“For a little while now, we’ve been in a playoff mindset,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.

The 49ers have been to the playoffs just once the past seven seasons. They’re in position to go this season as one of the NFC’s three wild-card teams, and they’ll further solidify that bid with a win Sunday.

The Atlanta Falcons (6-7) are a hungry enough squad to keep the 49ers (7-6) honest and on point with four games until wild-card weekend.

“It’s just that little bit of extra pressure, motivation, whatever you want to call it,” Garoppolo added. “It just helps guys lock in a little better.”

The 49ers have won 5 of 7 since a four-game losing streak. They’ve come a long way since that rain-soaked mess against Indianapolis on Oct. 24. And they’ve got a long way to go.

Currently listed with a 75-percent chance of making the playoffs, the 49ers could swing that to 88 percent with a win over the Falcons or 33 percent with a loss, according to data analytics run by fivethirtyeight.com. Other teams scratching for wild-card spots are Washington (6-7), the Vikings (6-7), the Eagles (6-7), the Saints (6-7), the Panthers (5-8) and the Seahawks (5-8).

Here are five keys to beating the Falcons and avenging a December 2019 home loss to them:

1. TIGHT END ‘UNICORNS’

No tight end is hotter than the 49ers’ George Kittle. He’s scored six touchdowns the past six games, and he’s produced 332 yards on 22 receptions the last two games.

Kittle’s blocking ability – see: 2019 uproarious highlight of him pancaking Ricardo Allen in the end zone – is also what sparked his agent to dub Kittle a “unicorn” before 2020 contract extension.

Well, in the Falcons’ pregame notes this week, under the headline “Unicorn Sighting,” they tout the exploits of their star tight end, rookie Kyle Pitts.

Not only did his 163 yards in Week 7 set a single-game record by a Falcons tight end, but his 770 yards this season are the second-most ever by a NFL tight end through 11 games (Mike Ditka, 974).

So who’ll man up on Pitts? The 49ers’ linebacker corps is not a beacon of health, not with Fred Warner (ankle) and Azeez Al-Shaair (elbow) wounded in last Sunday’s win at Cincinnati.

Both Warner and Al-Shaair figure to play and hold their own. But the 49ers can get help from a self-proclaimed tight end stopper, safety Jimmie Ward.

“He takes pride in locking down tight ends. It’s another week to prove that,” Warner said of Ward.

2. STOP THE RUN

Wait, our No. 2 assignment is also for the 49ers defense? Even though the Falcons are averaging only 18.8 points (26th in NFL) and 316.4 yards (24th)? Even though they still have quarterback Matt Ryan, whose veteran poise produced a touchdown pass to (now-former Falcon) Julio Jones in the closing seconds of that 2019 comeback at Levi’s Stadium?

Yes, Atlanta’s run game is a threat because it’s found a groove, breaching over 100 yards in three consecutive games.

The 49ers’ run defense came alive last week to slow Bengals’ 1,000-yard rusher Joe Mixon, but the 16 rushing touchdowns allowed are already the most in a season under Shanahan.

The Falcons have converted touchdown-making kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson into a hybrid weapon. He’s their leading rusher (547 yards, five touchdowns) and second-leading receiver (519 yards, five touchdowns). He’s their Deebo Samuel, loosely speaking.

“He’s listed as receiver and they play him at running back a lot, so that is very similar in that way,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Yeah, they’re both those two type of players.”

The Falcons’ starting running back is actually Mike Davis, a 49ers’ castoff who averaged 2.0 yards his first two NFL seasons with them (2015-16). Davis’ average is 3.4 yards this season, with two touchdowns in 111 carries.

3. STAY TURNOVER FREE

Of all the defining stats, none is more reflective of the 49ers’ weekly fate than their turnover margin, or, specifically, Jimmy Garoppolo’s.

The 49ers are 6-0 this season when Garoppolo has no passes intercepted. He narrowly avoided one last week – a potential, pick-six in the fourth quarter – and then he rallied with a sensational overtime effort (6-of-6, 78 yards, game-winner to Brandon Aiyuk).

Good news for Garoppolo’s protection (attn: right tackle Tom Compton): The Falcons have a league-low 16 sacks. Dante Fowler has three strip-sacks, but he’s questionable with a calf injury. Grady Jarrett (30 pressures, 11 quarterback hits) is the interior menace to watch, and cornerback A.J. Terrell is not the one to target.

The Falcons forced five turnovers in their past two wins (over the Panthers and the Jaguars), and at least one turnover in their other four victories. With one takeaway or less, they’re 3-7.

On the flip side, the 49ers have created 11 takeaways on defense and special teams in their past five games (four wins).

4. PREVENT DEFENSE

The words “prevent defense” may make you cringe, but the 49ers’ secondary must use it for survival mode with so much concern at cornerback.

Even if the 49ers get a comfortable lead, they’ve repeatedly allowed opponents to rally with deep passes, and Ryan certainly has that capability toward eclipsing the 59,000-yard career mark this game (58,871).

Ryan doesn’t have Jones (traded to Titans) or Calvin Ridley (personal leave) but remains successful throwing beyond 20 yards: 11-of-23, 421 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions for a NFL-best 123.0 passer rating in that situation.

With Josh Norman on one side and the forever-unheralded K’Waun Williams at nickel back, Ryan will target the other outside cornerback, which Joe Burrow did to attack rookie Ambry Thomas’ starting debut last Sunday.

Whether Thomas, fellow rookie Deommodore Lenoir or veteran Dontae Johnson starts at the other cornerback spot, the entire secondary needs to watch Russell Gage on third downs (43 receptions, 31 conversions). And Nick Bosa needs to add to his career-high total of 14 sacks.

5. HOME-FIELD SUCCESS

The 49ers scored 31 and 34 points in their past two home games, victories over the Rams and the Vikings. Remember how? By running the ball like mad.

In that 31-10 rout of the Rams on Nov. 15, the 49ers accrued 44 carries for 156 yards, and highlighting that effort was an 18-play, 93-yard touchdown drive (13 runs, three third-down conversion passes) that ate up 11 minutes for a 7-0 lead.

In the 34-26 win over Minnesota on Nov. 28, the 49ers had 39 carries for 208 yards, and they closed the first half with a 15-play, 85-yard drive.

Running back Elijah Mitchell had 27 carries in each win, but he’ll be out a second straight game with lingering knee pain. Kyle Juszczyk can still lead the way for Samuel, Jeff Wilson Jr. or whoever else Shanahan summons.

The Falcons’ 5-2 road record is being ballyhooed, but consider this: none of those wins came against a team currently in a playoff spot (Giants, Saints, Dolphins, Jaguars, Cardinals) and their losses were in blowout fashion (43-3 at Dallas, 48-25 at Tampa Bay).

If the 49ers win this one, then down the Houston Texans on Jan. 2, it will mark the first time they’ve won four consecutive home games in a season since 2011.

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