The Atlanta Falcons have turned in three straight unimpressive performances, but they have a chance to regain their footing when they visit the reeling San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Atlanta has dropped two of its last three games following a 5-0 start under first-year coach Dan Quinn. The Falcons were surpised at home by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23-20 in overtime in Week 8 and barely escaped another major upset with a 10-7 victory at Tennesee two weeks ago.
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A matchup with San Francisco sets up as a get-well game for Atlanta. The injury-ravaged 49ers have not scored a touchdown in their last eight quarters and made the move to bench starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick this week. Blaine Gabbert will make his first start since Oct. 6, 2013, and enters the matchup on a 10-game losing streak.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Falcons and the 49ers.
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1. Figure out your pass rush, then send the house on Blaine Gabbert
Gabbert hasn't seen extended action since October 2013 and there's no reason to believe that a quarterback with a career completion percentage of 53.2 percent, with a 23:24 touchdown to interception ratio, is going to torch you. In Gabbert's last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he had thrown one touchdown against seven interceptions through three games. Gabbert needs to be tested with an aggressive defensive gameplan.
2. Lean on Devonta Freeman
The 49ers have been simply terrible against opposing running backs in 2015, and we should expect the Falcons to take full advantage. Heading into Week 9, San Francisco has allowed 883 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns, 51 receptions, 387 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown to opposing running backs. Freeman's likely to get a heavy workload and we could definitely see some Tevin Coleman sprinkled in as well. Regardless, this isn't a week to ask Matt Ryan to air it out too much.
3. Keep an extra eye on Torrey Smith
Anquan Boldin did not practice Thursday, and it is likely that he will miss another game this weekend. Believe it or not, Gabbert is actually a much better fit at quarterback for Smith. The 49ers are going to try to get the ball to Smith early and often, giving him a chance to win in space and over the top. With injuries to Boldin and Carlos Hyde, and a trade deadline deal that sent Vernon Davis packing, the 49ers don't have many other ploffensive weapons to lean on.
1. Pray ... for good health
Leading rusher Carlos Hyde and top wideout Anquan Boldin each missed last weekend's 27-6 loss at St. Louis and a repeat scenario would not bode well for San Francisco, particularly with the cupboard bare behind Hyde. Boldin has not missed more than one game since the 2008 season. His 31 catches aside, he provides a toughness and physical presence necessary for a struggling team.
2. Be innovative
Is it wise to put the game in the hands of a quarterback who is 5-22 as a starter and has made one cameo appearance in more than two years? No, but with the top three running backs and top two tight ends from last week's loss unavailable, the 49ers may have to resort to desperate measures. Line up four or five wide receivers at a time and try to exploit Atlanta's banged-up secondary.
3. Make Matt Ryan beat you
Again, this may not be the most sound strategy, but the 49ers have to pick their poison, per se, when facing the league's No. 1 wide receiver in Julio Jones and its top rusher (Freeman). Ryan is third in the NFL with 2,399 passing yards, but he's hardly played mistake-free football. In his last four games, Ryan has thrown five interceptions and lost three fumbles.