Mariota’s near perfection, defense fuel Atlanta Falcons victory

Oct 16, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons players including quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) react with tight end Kyle Pitts (8) after his touchdown catch against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 16, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons players including quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) react with tight end Kyle Pitts (8) after his touchdown catch against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Coming off the horrendous robbery of an opportunity to stun the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Atlanta Falcons returned home to face the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco, who stayed on the east coast at the Greenbrier in West Virginia following their expected trouncing of the Panthers, were returning former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and running back Tevin Coleman, two key parts of the 2016 offense that went into NFL history books.

This contest also brought about the fabled return of the throwback uniforms complete with the red helmets, a staple of the Falcons from when they went 7-1 in those from 2009-2012. One of those wins, ironically enough, came at the hands of the 49ers in a thriller during the fabled 2010 season.

In terms of team statistics, the Falcons were outgained by the 49ers (346-289), had one fewer offensive play (57-56), had fewer first downs (10-8), and saw Jimmy Garoppolo throw for over double what Marcus Mariota had (296-129). However, the Falcons managed to control the time of possession (33:25-26:35), completely trounced the vaunted 49ers run defense with 168 yards on 40 carries (a 4.2 YPC), and converted 64% of third down opportunities (9/14). Furthermore, the Falcons also won the most important battle outside of total points: the turnover battle (SF: 3; ATL: 0). Also, Mariota went a very impressive 13-14 passing, his only incompletion coming in the fourth quarter (which FOX broadcaster Mark Schlereth noted the reason was his foot placement forcing the errant pass), quieting the Desmond Ridder crowd for at least another week.

Atlanta’s game plan went off surprisingly well against the best defense in the NFL through five weeks. On their first drive, the Falcons converted three third downs, had a 37-yard catch-and-run by Olamide Zaccheaus, then punched it in on a Mariota pass to practice squad call-up, MyCole Pruitt. Even through all the adversities, Atlanta’s resiliency to force it on the 49ers ended up doing what no team had managed to do up until this point: score a touchdown in the first half.

The defense, however, also decided to step up early. After forcing a three-and-out on San Francisco’s first drive, on third down from the 20, Jeff Wilson was stripped of the football by Rashaan Evans, and A.J. Terrell scooped up the loose ball. Running to his left, he was pushed out of bounds by George Kittle, losing the ball in the process. Despite it coming dangerously close to bouncing out of the end zone and giving the 49ers a touchback, Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins picked up the ball before disaster struck, and it was suddenly 14-0.

However, following this ineptitude early on, San Francisco opted to turn to their “Old Reliable” of sorts with offense: find Deebo Samuel, force-feed him, and open up the screen passes. This strategy proved very effective, as Atlanta’s focus on Samuel and his powerful running style provided George Kittle to make his mark and Brandon Aiyuk to score two touchdowns in a four-minute span, one on a screen pass with a great seal block on Terrell and another where he ran the “whip” or “China” route and Terrell bit a little too hard.

Not wanting to be outdone, Mariota responded in a huge way, converting more third downs, including an impressive 15-yard scamper on 3rd & 12 to stay alive, then scampering across the goal line on a read option immediately after a 16-yard run by Caleb Huntley to give Atlanta a 21-14 lead, a lead they’d hold into the half following an interception by the returning Isaiah Oliver.

The second half was essentially a defensive battle throughout, with both sides simply refusing to truly give any leeway against their opposition.

The final points of the contest came in probably the one thing Falcons fans (and fantasy owners) have been clamoring for since the Julio Jones controversy of 2019. Facing a third down from the 49ers’ seven-yard line, Mariota dropped back to pass, and for the first time on American soil (technically turf, but who cares?), Kyle Pitts caught a touchdown and celebrated with a “Dirty Bird”.

From there, despite losing Terrell to a hamstring injury (didn’t look severe; him running on the sideline is good, but should be limited this week in practice), Hayward to a shoulder injury, Oliver to an unknown injury, and Ta’Quon Graham, the young Falcons secondary stepped up with timely pass breakups (and a few 49ers drops) and an interception by Jaylinn Hawkins where Darren Hall pointed where to be and made a bang-bang play to set up the turnover. An argument could be made for defensive pass interference, but given the fact that both players were going for the ball, it’s the same as against Tampa: incidental contact is granted; egregious contact warrants the flag.

With the win, the Falcons, now sitting at 3-3, have already surpassed the “projected” win totals of multiple media outlets. This all falls in with the fact that Atlanta had “the worst roster”, “no playmakers”, and “the worst dead cap number in NFL history”. Honestly, if the Jets and Giants weren’t a surprising combination of 9-3, Arthur Smith should be getting strong Coach of the Year consideration. Add on the fact that his team nearly defeated the GOAT if not for officiating protection, this man is selling a mindset that this young core is buying.

Atlanta now travels north to Cincinnati to face off against Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Cincinnati, who just finished defeating the Saints on the road, also sit at 3-3 and in a tight division race themselves. The winner of this contest will get massive assistance moving forward, and Atlanta’s looking to finally get above .500 since 2017.

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