FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It's not a secret that the Falcons' next opponent - the San Francisco 49ers - has one of the best (if not the best) defenses in the league currently, particularly when discussing their run defense, specifically.
Don't believe me? Here are a few stats to back that argument up...
For starters, they lead the league in sacks (21). They defend the run as consistently as anyone. Opponents average a league lowest three yards a carry against them. They've given up less than 400 rushing yards - total - through the first five games of the season. The only game in which they've allowed over 100 rushing yards came in Week 3 against the Broncos.
Meanwhile, it's no secret that the Falcons want to run the ball. It's become a staple of who they are as an offense, even with Cordarrelle Patterson on injured reserve for at least a few more weeks.
One could argue the Falcons are at their best when they're running the ball, and running it productively, on first and second down. However, this was something they struggled to do against an experienced Tampa Bay defense last Sunday. A major reason for the Falcons offensive struggles in the first half against the Buccaneers had a foundation in the Falcons lack of production in early-down situations.
Too often the Falcons were dropped for a loss on first or second down, losing yards because of penalties or dropping passes. Too often they saw themselves in third and long situations. Way too often.
For Atlanta to see the offensive success they have seen in more games than not this season, that needs to change. And it'll have to change against one of the top defenses in the league.
"It really does come down to being efficient on first and second down," Mariota said. "When you look at the Niners on defense they really feast on negative plays, so they can really rev up and get those pass rushes going on third and long."
The 49ers defense is one of the best in the league at "getting people off track," according to Arthur Smith. The Falcons head coach continued by saying they consistently blow up double teams as well as attacking the edge of the protection.
Their physicality up front, Smith added, cannot be missed.
So, what does this mean for the Falcons? It means for them to have a chance against the No. 1 team in the NFC West they have to stay on track offensively and do so with a little bit of mystery. If the Falcons become too one-dimensional, as they did a bit in the first half against Tampa Bay, the 49ers can - and will - lock in.
"Those are the games within the game," Smith said, "because when you're playing a front like this and you make it really easy on them where they're only thinking about one thing, it's a nightmare."
Smith brought up the need to limit negative plays, too.
"Whether they're the penalties, poor execution, tackle for losses, sacks," Smith listed, "then, you're getting into too many third and 11-plus. More times than not the odds are against you and when you're doing it against a really good front like this? That's when they get you in a bind."
"That's what (San Francisco has) done most of the season to a lot of offenses."
From the 49ers perspective, they're working through a number of injuries that could factor into Sunday's game. DT Arik Armstrong (foot, ankle), DE Nick Bosa (groin), DE Samson Ebukam (achilles), DT Javon Kinlaw (knee), CB Emmanuel Moseley (knee) and CB Jimmie Ward (hand) did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Their statuses throughout the week will be something to monitor.
However, none of this should truly affect the Falcons prep this week. They have to clean up some things up offensively, and that doesn't change whether they face these players on Sunday or not.
So, what actually needs to change? Mariota explains.
"It's understanding, you know what? Taking a check down here or a two, three-yard run, those are efficient. They're keeping the ball moving forward," Mariota said. "We can't have negative plays. We can't have dropped snaps. We can't have sacks. Those things really derail your entire drive. It's being able to understand that we have to be more efficient on first and second down to get into third and manageables. We can keep ourselves on the field by converting those."
If there's a key to the Falcons offensive success this Sunday, it's this.
We take a closer look at the iconic red helmet the team will be wearing against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, presented by Coca-Cola.