AtlantaFalcons.com contributing writer Daniel Cox takes a listen to Wednesday's conference calls with the Atlanta media from San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Alex Smith to break down what the opposing team is saying and thinking as it heads into a crucial game against the Falcons on Sunday inside the Georgia Dome.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —On Wednesday, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson was asked about playing a team coached by a linebacker. He grinned and said he felt it meant you were playing a team whose trademark was toughness, a prerequisite for an NFL linebacker.
The Atlanta Falcons' Week 4 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, is coached by a linebacker, one of the better ones to play the position. A Hall of Famer and leader of famed 1980's Chicago Bears defenses, Mike Singletary approaches coaching just as he approached the game as a player.
Linebackers know they won't make every play and their defenses won't stop every drive, but they have to be able to regroup, refocus and bounce back.
Entering the Georgia Dome on Sunday, Singletary's 49ers are 0-3 after being touted as the favorites to win the NFC West. Last week's bitter 31-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was one of the tougher ones the head coach has experienced.
During his conference call with the Atlanta media Wednesday, he shared how his mentality as a linebacker has helped him to continue to grind through what is already a tough season.
"I think in this game, whether you're going through growing pains or have been in the game for 20 years, it's the same after a loss," Singletary said. "I think the most important thing is we have to continue to focus on the vision that we have as a football team. At some point in time we're going to take that step, hopefully sooner than later. We're going to be a good football team, but we're just not as mature as I would like for us to be."
Across the field on the Falcons' sidelines will stand another former linebacker, Atlanta head coach Mike Smith. While he never played at the levels of Singletary, he, too, developed many of his coaching philosophies while playing.
One of the Falcons' mantras of training camp was to work hard each day and approach every practice, every situation, with the mindset of doing something to make yourself a better player or coach than the previous day. It was a teaching delivered directly from Smith and one Singletary and his staff are delivering, as well.
"You want to get a little bit better each day and at the end of the year hopefully you have a chance to play for more than just the end of the season," he said. "That is our hope."
On the sidelines, two former linebackers will square off, but on the field of play, one of the best young linebackers in the league will be leading his defense — San Francisco's Patrick Willis.
Entering his fourth season, Willis, already a two-time All-Pro, is a player in the vein of Singletary. When the head coach speaks about him, it sounds almost like he's talking about himself.
"Pat is just Pat," the head coach said. "He's a blue-collar guy who just works hard. He tries to do the best that he can week in and week out. We're very fortunate to have Pat."
Willis is a team captain and is currently tied with six players for 12th in the NFL with 27 tackles. In three games, he's added a sack and he's a player whose damage the Falcons will focus on limiting on Sunday.
Hold the line:Entering this season, it appeared the 49ers offensive line was a strength and headed in the right direction with the addition of two first-round linemen in tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati.
San Francisco's line followed up a first-week loss where it allowed two sacks to the Seahawks, with an impressive Week 2 performance against an aggressive New Orleans Saints' defense.
Against the Saints, they didn't allow a sack of quarterback Alex Smith and paved the way for an offensive output that earned 417 yards.
Last week the 49ers fell victim to the young Chiefs defense which sacked Smith five times. It wasn't a good performance and Davis, a starter at right tackle, show some of his own youth in the third quarter.
Down 10-3 with the 49ers converting a third-down on their first possession of the third quarter, Davis was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Davis felt his reaction was in response to Kansas City defensive tackle Shaun Smith's roughness throughout the game.
Singletary was disappointed in how his rookie played in Week 3 and anticipates a learning curve with Davis.
"He took a step back in this game (Week 3)," said Singletary. "He didn't do a good job fundamentally. He kind of did some things that got him in trouble. He's a young kid and he has a lot to learn. Hopefully he can grow up a lot between now and Sunday."
The 49ers are tied with seven teams for the eighth-most sacks allowed in the NFL with seven. They're second in the league in how many times they've allowed their QB to be hit with 23.
The Falcons' defense is tied for seventh in the league with seven sacks and Singletary knows if his line plays like it did last week, it could be a recipe for disaster.
"I know the front for Atlanta, John Abraham in particular, are very excited to play us," Singletary said. "I just think it's important for us to be focused and continue to get our young kids acclimated and ready to do a good job blocking and protect our quarterback better."
New coordinator in town:The 49ers will feature a new offensive coordinator Sunday when quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson assumes the role of offensive coordinator in place of the recently fired Jimmy Raye.
Smith felt Singletary made the decision that the head coach felt was best for the team after three weeks of the season and the quarterback said he and his teammates would continue to move forward.
Johnson, a former quarterback's coach in Atlanta, gave Singletary a person familiar with the personnel of the team and its abilities when he was promoted on Monday.
"I just felt comfortable with it," Singletary said. "I felt he would do a good job."
With the key components in San Francisco's offense, running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, being focused on by Atlanta, Singletary hopes his new coordinator will be able to draw the best out of the other nine players on offense.
"I just want our offense to get on the same page," the head coach said. "I want all the players that we have, the playmakers, I want everybody to be involved. I think in one way or another, whether you're blocking or whether you're catching the ball, whatever you're doing, everybody needs to play a role. That's the most important thing for us."
Regardless of the impact others have, Gore is still the engine that makes the 49ers' offense go — on the ground and in the air.
After a 100-plus yard running effort in Week 2, he followed with a 102-yard receiving day on nine catches.
He's on pace to break his career records in yards receiving — his previous high was 485 in 2006.
Smith thinks it's nothing new for his running back to catch passes and he thinks it's a vital part of their offense.
"He's always been that," Smith said. "I don't know if he's had that reputation, but since his rookie year, second year in the league when he came in, he's led this team in catches for more than once. He's always had that in his game. I think he gets a lot of attention because he runs the ball so well between the tackles. He's a really versatile guy, I think that's why we do so much with him, but he's definitely a guy I feel comfortable throwing to."
Johnson will have the task of facing a quickly improving Atlanta defense that allows 238 yards passing per game and has only given up three passing touchdowns on the season.