Five 49ers to watch against Falcons in Week 15 of 2021 NFL season

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Deebo should be important as runner/receiver vs. Falcons originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The importance of the 49ers’ Week 15 game against the Atlanta Falcons is undeniable.

It does not quite fit into the “must win” category, but it is darn close when the implications are considered.

The 49ers will almost assuredly earn a postseason berth with a victory. They will face an uphill climb to qualify for the postseason with a loss.

But that is really no different than the situation they have faced in the second half of the season.

“For a little while now, we've been in a playoff mindset just the way we prepare,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “You could feel it in the locker room. You could feel it on the practice field. It's just that little bit of extra pressure, motivation, whatever you want to call it. It just helps guys lock in a little better.”

If Garoppolo takes care of the football and the 49ers convert on third downs approximately 50-percent of the time, the team should be in good shape Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

As always, Garoppolo is probably the 49ers’ most-important player.

But, other than him, here are five players the 49ers will be counting on during this crucial matchup:

5. C Alex Mack

One of the 49ers’ key offseason pickups was center Alex Mack, who spent the previous five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.

This is Mack’s third season in Kyle Shanahan’s offense with a third different team. He has proven to be a solid free-agent acquisition, and his experience figures to be crucial on Sunday.

Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees does not have a whole lot of talent on his side. So he will try to have his unit disguise pressures and coverages to make things difficult on Garoppolo and Mack, who is responsible for the line calls.

If Mack can keep the offensive linemen on the same page, that unit will be able to provide Garoppolo with enough time to pick up some key conversions on third down.

4. P Mitch Wishnowsky

Punter Mitch Wishnowsky has worked in conjunction with the 49ers’ punt coverage unit to produce a career-best 42.4 net average. 

Wishnowsky was one of the stars of the 49ers’ Week 14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals with his ability to make his punts difficult to handle. The 49ers recovered two muffed punts that led to 10 points.

Sixteen of Wishnowsky’s punts in his three-year career have been muffed or bobbled, according to 49ers special teams coach Richard Hightower. Wishnowsky has a variety of different styles on his punts that make it difficult on punt returners to judge and field.

“He can hang the ball, he's got so many different tricks in his bags, so many different clubs in his bag that his balls just fall different ways, depending on which balls he wants to kick and when he wants to use those,” Hightower said.

3. TE George Kittle

George Kittle last week became the first tight end in NFL history to go for at least 150 yards and one touchdown in back-to-back games.

Obviously, the Falcons will place a great deal of attention on keeping Kittle in check. Either Kittle will still get his catches and yards and impact the game in that way, or he’ll draw attention away from others to open up more areas of the 49ers’ playbook.

But the thing that makes Kittle so important to the 49ers is his ability to have a major impact in every aspect of the team’s offense. As always, the 49ers will want to run the ball. And regardless of which player has the ball in his hands, Kittle serves as a key component of the up-front blocking.

2. DT Arik Armstead

After Javon Kinlaw underwent season-ending knee surgery, the 49ers moved Arik Armstead to defensive tackle on a full-time basis.

Armstead does not put up flashy numbers, but he has been a big reason for the 49ers’ success defending the run. Over the past four games, the 49ers’ defense is allowing just 3.26 yards per rushing attempt.

The Falcons want to run the ball. If the 49ers clog things up and force third-and-long situations, the pass rush should be able to administer consistent pressure on Matt Ryan.

And with Atlanta focusing its protection on slowing down Nick Bosa, that should open one-on-one opportunities for Armstead to get hits on the quarterback. The 49ers' pass rush must put heat on Ryan to take some of the pressure off their beleaguered group of cornerbacks.

RELATED: 49ers overreactions: Pass rush must compensate for corners

1. WR Deebo Samuel

Running back Elijah Mitchell is not expected to be available for a second consecutive game, and that could place more on the plate of wide receiver Deebo Samuel to do running back kinds of things.

Samuel has gone over the 1,000-yard mark as a receiver. But in his past three games, he has only three receptions for 49 yards. During that same stretch, he has 22 rushing attempts for 182 yards and four touchdowns.

Samuel’s versatility allows Shanahan to figure out how to best use him on a game-to-game basis. That should keep the Falcons guessing when the 49ers break the huddle if Samuel will be a runner or a receiver.

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