Falcons feast on generous 49ers
ATLANTA – The San Francisco 49ers' failure to execute the fundamentals allowed quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) and the Atlanta Falcons to do the phenomenal.
The 49ers literally fumbled and tossed away another game in what could become coach Mike Singletary's swan song rather than what was supposed to be a symphony. At 0-4, San Francisco's hopes of living up to preseason playoff expectations rest on the ineptitude of the rest of the NFC West.
Conversely, 3-1 Atlanta is developing the type of confidence that comes with overcoming adversity – even if it's self-imposed distress. In overcoming an early two-touchdown deficit for a thrilling 16-14 victory on Sunday, the Falcons got plenty of help from the 49ers.
Between cornerback Nate Clements'(notes) terrible decision to return an interception in the final two minutes when he should have simply fallen down to three bad decisions by quarterback Alex Smith, the 49ers played as if they had never gone over certain in-game situations.
By contrast, the Falcons showed that they've done plenty of work in the classroom, going over the little things that can snatch victory from a sure loss. From there, Ryan showed that he may very well be on a path to greatness, executing critical throw after critical throw over the final 1:20 to set up a 43-yard field goal by Matt Bryant(notes) for the win.
One of those critical passes from Ryan included one throw that few humans can really attempt, let alone complete with the game on the line. The fact that Ryan did it portends to greatness, as one of Ryan's most accomplished teammates noted.
"No doubt about it, he has the most ability of any quarterback I have played with, just in terms of arm strength, the whole package, the upside," said tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), who should end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "The experience of playing in games like this can only help you."
Ryan engineered a 12-play, 68-yard drive at the end that included converting a third-and-10 play and handling five blitzes. The most impressive play was a 20-yard tracer-bullet throw he made to wide receiver Roddy White(notes) in front of the San Francisco sideline with 57 seconds remaining. That throw got the Falcons out of second-and-6, helped put them in position for the winning field goal and off to a 3-1 start.
"I think it was more about the catch," Ryan said, playing the role of good leader by giving credit to White. "But those are the throws you have to make and those are the catches you have to make to win games when it comes down to the wire."
During the offseason, Ryan said he and White worked on that play at least a hundred times. It’s designed specifically for when an opponent likes to run a two-deep safety coverage with the cornerback playing man-to-man technique.
"We had seen that coverage a number of times and that's one of the things we like to do against that," said Ryan, who completed 26 of 43 passes for 273 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. "Get Roddy on the sideline with the cornerback's back turned. You gotta drive that ball."
In other words, you can't make some pretty rainbow throw or else the safety is going to break it up. You also can't throw the ball chest high to the wide receiver or the cornerback is going to knock it away. So it has to be high and hard and in a spot where you give the receiver just enough room to get his feet in as he runs down the sideline.
"You're throwing the ball into a 5-gallon bucket and if you don't throw it into that 5-gallon bucket, you're not going to complete it," Atlanta coach Mike Smith(notes) said.
Oh yeah, and the bucket is about 30-something yards away in real distance.
Or as Smith put it another way: "It can't be off the chessboard."
That's appropriate on another level because the Falcons were the team playing chess while the 49ers were playing checkers.
The most obvious one was Clements' decision to return an interception he made with 1:31 remaining. Clements made a terrific play to cut across the middle and nab the short throw by Ryan at midfield.
"Great play by him, I didn't even see him," Ryan said.
From there, however, Clements acted like a rookie rather than a veteran in his 10th year. Clements ran down the left side, obviously looking to score. Sadly, it was unnecessary.
Worse, it backfired when White chased Clements down from behind, stripped him of the ball and guard Harvey Dahl(notes) recovered at the Atlanta 7-yard line.
"What makes you happy about that situation is that not only did Roddy chase it down, but Matt went to cut off the angle and the offensive linemen were following the ball," Smith said. "That's something we've trained them to do, follow the ball."
Sadly, one can only wonder if the 49ers were trained how to handle the situation.
Up 14-13 at the time, the 49ers didn't need to score again. In fact, scoring a touchdown there would have put San Francisco up eight points and given Atlanta a chance to tie. The 49ers could have gotten the ball with 1:20 remaining, forced Atlanta to use its timeouts and/or run out the clock.
When Singletary was asked what he would have done in that situation, he said, "That's an unfair question." Perhaps, but Singletary knows the best strategy play is to fall down rather than score. If Singletary knows that, Clements should also have known.
Likewise, San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith should know by now that throwing a high pass to a running back in the middle of the field is a recipe for disaster. In the second game of the season, Smith did that in a frustrating loss to New Orleans. His high pass to Frank Gore(notes) tipped off Gore's hand for an interception.
At the end of the first half against the Falcons, Smith did the same thing. Trying to avoid a sack that wouldn't have been so bad, Smith hurried a high throw to Gore for a tipped pick. The Falcons cashed that one in for another field goal.
In the second half, Smith made a bad read on a throw to the left that was picked off by William Moore(notes) and set up Atlanta's second field goal. It was the kind of read that just about any good quarterback knows. Finally, Smith tried to do too much to avoid a sack at the end of the game and took the 49ers out of field goal range with an intentional grounding call.
That left Singletary to answer more questions about a quickly disintegrating season.
"We have to stop hurting ourselves," Singletary said. "We are shooting ourselves in the foot."
That's not quite the case. In this situation, the 49ers allowed Ryan to pull the trigger.