The San Francisco Forty Niners have a knack for playing well on the brightest of stages. They win big matchups, they win on the road, and they win on Monday and Sunday nights. This trend repeated itself again on Monday, only this time the team not only won in prime time, but also in the last game that will ever be played in Candlestick Park.
Although they sent the fans home happy, it was done so with a little luck and a lot of big plays in a 34-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. In a game that started slow and steadily gained speed, the Niners continued to showed flashes of the multi-faceted team they were last year. However those flashes were just that—instances–and it is clear that this team continues to struggle with consistency. This is especially true on offense, with the first half being the most blatant example of the team’s struggles.
During the first half the offense couldn’t even generate 40 yards on any of their drives. After kicking a field goal on their first drive, they proceeded to end the half with 4 straight punts and only 98 yards of total offense. Despite this, they were only down by 7 thanks to their defense. Coming out of halftime, it was immediately obvious that this was a different team. The passing game started getting first downs, Frank Gore began turning 4 yard runs into 8 yards runs, and there was a rhythm with which plays were called and executed. It was like watching a locomotive speeding up and never slowing down. The same offense that only mustered 40 yards and 3 points in the first half, scored 24 points and had 288 yards in the second half. It was a case of Jekyll vs. Hyde, they scored on every possession, and the team needed every point it could get as the Falcons hung around long enough to nearly steal a win at the end.
A big part of this turnaround was the continued progress of Michael Crabtree, who shredded the Falcons secondary and demonstrated the type of route running and hands that defined his success last season. He was the key to the game. His playmaking opened up opportunities for Anquan Boldin and other receivers, and, as a result, Gore was able find holes at the line of scrimmage to make those big plays. When the Niners can throw or pass, they are unbeatable. Most teams are, but most teams don’t have the front seven San Francisco does.
With the defense as their backbone, this team can win it all. That said, this unit was inconsistent on Monday. They played tough and hard-nosed football in the first half despite allowing a big play, and if it weren’t for their play the team could have ended Candlestick’s run with an L. However in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter, the secondary fell apart. Matt Ryan started carving up the defense like it was the first half of last year’s NFC Championship game, and he found repeated success in targeting the 49ers’ best corner in Tramaine Brock, although he had the receivers well covered on multiple plays. When the front four was not able to create pressure, the secondary started to fold. Reminiscent of last year, if this defense cannot get in a quarterback’s face, especially a good quarterback, they can be defeated.
Despite all this, the team made a big play when it counted. This is a defense that has consistently forced big time turnovers all year, and despite giving up 348 passing yards to Ryan, they still held him to a respectable 7.4 yards per attempt. Equally as important is that they were able to shut down Steven Jackson, holding him to 3.3 yards a rush. They may have only garnered one sack, but they had 8 tackles for losses. That shows that they were active and disruptive at the point of attack. That activity faded towards the end of the game, but that was more likely a result of being on the field for almost ten minutes in the fourth quarter.
All in all, though, this team looks primed for the playoffs. They seem to make big plays when it counts, and for second straight game they did not have a turnover. That is a stat to keep an eye on once the post-season starts.