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Five Keys: Falcons vs. 49ers

4c805356b6973d192b8e0200.jpg contributing writer Daniel Cox gets you ready for Sunday's game with his five keys to a Falcons victory, including mixing up the offense, getting a few new guys involved and making sure superstar linebacker Patrick Willis isn't a factor in Week 4 at the Georgia Dome.

Sandwiched between two blowout losses, the San Francisco 49ers made the New Orleans Saints look beatable, despite losing 25-22 in overtime.

Then, the Falcons went out in Week 3 and beat the Saints in overtime.

It was the second game Atlanta went into overtime through just three games this season, and in Week 4 at home against the 49ers, the Falcons would like to avoid another extra-minutes effort.

Last season on the road in San Francisco, Atlanta produced an explosion on offense — winning 45-10 — that many felt would remain throughout the season. Injuries and some inconsistencies prevented that, but this year, the Falcons' offense appears to have turned a corner and is tied for fifth in the NFL with 25.7 points per game.

After an 0-3 start, the 49ers appear to be teetering on the brink of disappointment, but behind the fire and brimstone passion of head coach Mike Singletary, this NFC West squad won't go down Sunday without a fight.

A look at the five keys that could ensure a Falcons victory in Week 4:

Avoid the trap:After one of the biggest wins in Atlanta head coach Mike Smith's tenure last week, it's easy for those who follow the league to point to this 49ers matchup and call it a trap game, a game the Falcons could lose because they fell victim to their own hype and success.

Always with his finger on the pulse of his team, Smith told his players at the beginning of the season to ride the highs and lows of the season patiently. He asked them not to get too amped after a win or too down after a loss.

So far, they've shown an ability to do this, coming back in Week 2 to put up 41 points in a win over the Cardinals. They followed it last week by beating the Super Bowl champs in their own building.

Smith thinks he's got the right mix of guys to pull off what he's asking: come ready to play each and every week, regardless of last week's outcome.

"We want guys on our football team, and I think we have guys on our team, that know how to appropriately deal with when things go well and when things go bad," Smith said Monday. "I think that the thing that you have to have is you've got to make sure that you stay the course and work like we have been working since training camp started. We've preached from the very beginning that it's always about the little things and there's a bunch of little things that we can improve on from last week's ballgame as we move forward to this week."

Swing outside: The 49ers are tough up the middle with underrated nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and middle linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes.

Atlanta will continue to power the running game up the middle all day, but they may find a front capable of slowing them down like Pittsburgh did in Week 1.

San Francisco's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs should give Atlanta a blueprint on how to beat the 49ers on the ground. The Chiefs mixed up their run game with the veteran running back Thomas Jones pounding up the middle and the elusive Jamaal Charles running to the outside.

While neither Atlanta back, Michael Turner nor Jason Snelling, are as fast as Charles, they both have the ability to reach the edge and have the quickness to pick up chunks of yards once there.

Surprise spread:Last season, the 49ers had their best offensive moments when featuring a spread attack to take advantage of their speed and quickness in the passing games.

With weapons like running back Frank Gore out of the backfield, tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, San Francisco could do some unexpected things and unveil spread offense themes under new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson.

Gore is dangerous in more ways than just taking handoffs from quarterback Alex Smith. In addition to his one touchdown, 112-yard rushing performance in Week 2, the former Miami Hurricane picked up a score on a 12-yard pass.

Although he was limited on the ground in Week 3, he hauled in nine passes for 102 yards and a long of 41.

With Gore doing everything in the offense, Crabtree and Davis could be freed up and veteran backup running back Brian Westbrook is always a dangerous option in the passing game and has been used sparingly thus far.

Watchin' Willis:Coincidentally, the only game last season where 49ers middle linebacker Willis made a big play and his team didn't win was against the Falcons. On that day he forced two fumbles, but the passing attack from Matt Ryan was too much.

When Willis intercepted a pass or recorded a sack in a game in every other game last season, the 49ers won.

Willis is the heart and soul of San Francisco's defense, a player cut from the same cloth of Singletary, and he is capable of changing games on his own.

Atlanta will want to avoid him as much as they can, hoping a running game that's east to west can keep Willis from controlling the middle of the field the way he's used to.

The two-time All-Pro will have a target on him Sunday and the Falcons' offensive line will look to get to the next level in their blocking to wash him out of plays.

Spread of their own:So far this season, Atlanta's seen big games from Snelling and Turner, wide receiver Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

They've done a good job of getting multiple players involved each week to answer what the opposing defense is doing or an injury (Snelling's performance in Week 2 after Turner left the game).

There are two more weapons on offense that have yet to have big games, slot receiver Harry Douglas and wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who has missed the first three games with a shoulder injury.

On Friday's injury report, Jenkins was listed as questionable. Both players can be important pieces to Atlanta's offense, Jenkins working the perimeter and Douglas using his quickness to open up things in the middle of the field.

If Ryan continues to spread the ball around as he's done so far this season, one of his offense's weapons will have another banner day and give San Francisco fits.

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