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Five things to watch as Falcons host San Francisco 49ers at home in Week 6

The 49ers come into Atlanta with a banged up defense. Can the Falcons take advantage? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons are looking to get back to .500, following last Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay. The 49ers are looking to continue to assert defensive dominance, even without some of their most productive defenders. Everyone will be looking at those red helmets.

There's so much to get into when it comes to this game. So, let's waste no time.


1. Kyle Pitts' return?

The Falcons announced on Friday that Pitts would be questionable ahead of Sunday's matchup. This comes after Pitts missed last Sunday's game in Tampa with a hamstring injury. The second-year tight end did practice this week, but was listed as limited on every injury report.

Talking to media during open locker room on Wednesday, Pitts confirmed that he was "feeling good and ready to go" this Sunday with the 49ers coming to town. Whether or not that happens, though, is still to be decided.

The hope for the Falcons is that Pitts makes his return, because - let's be honest - the Falcons are better with him on the field. I know fantasy owners may not believe me when I say this considering many are less than pleased with his targets through the first few weeks of the 2022 season, but Pitts is a major part of this offensive production if the ball is coming his way or not. Just having his presence on the field changes the way defenses play Atlanta, and that's just the truth.

It's about time for Pitts to go off. And if healthy, this could be the game to do so, particularly if the Falcons run game gets off to a slow start against the best run defenses in the league (but more on that later).

Two other starters (LG Elijah Wilkinson and OLB Ade Ogundeji) were listed as questionable on Friday, too. The Falcons can announce practice squad elevations on Saturday afternoon as well as Sunday's game's inactives list 90 minutes before kick off. Both of these announcements will be something to keep an eye out for as they arrive.

2. The effect of Mykal Walker's absence

Another injury to take note of is that of Walker's. He was ruled out of Sunday's game on Friday with a groin injury that he sustained in Tampa. He did not practice at all this week.

Make no mistake about it: Walker's absence is one that will be felt.

Walker is the defense's signal caller. He's the voice and commander of the unit at inside linebacker. Not having him on the field has the potential to be a huge loss if the Falcons cannot communicate properly without him.

That responsibility likely falls on a number of shoulders, but none so much as Rashaan Evans and Troy Andersen.

Andersen, specifically, is someone to watch on Sunday. The rookie inside linebacker will likely see a significant role change with Walker out.

Though Andersen has seen defensive action in almost every game this season, there should be an uptick in said action as he slides in to take over for Walker. Expect to see more of Nate Landman, too, as well as - potentially - Nick Kwiatkoski, who has been inactive up to this point.

Asked about Andersen's progression as a rookie, here's what Dean Pees had to say about him this week: "What I really like about him is he's an aggressive guy. He's going to make some rookie mistakes at times, but he's going to make aggressive rookie mistakes. Hey, I'm fine with that. Guy's going hard, practicing hard and learning."

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Mike Ford #28 and inside linebacker Troy Andersen #44 make a tackle during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, October 9, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

3. Grady Jarrett's continued climb

You've heard a lot about Jarrett since last Sunday. I don't need to rehash what happened on that day, chances are you've seen it/heard about it more times than you can count. So, I won't bring it up.

What I will bring up is how important Jarrett is to this defensive operation. As if you already didn't know...

Here are some of the stats about Jarrett's 2022 start from our Nerdy Birds series this week that you should take note of:

  • Jarrett ranks ninth among qualifying interior defensive linemen with a 76.4 pass-rush grade. Meanwhile, his 7.1 PRP ranks fifth and his 15.9-win rate ranks 11th, per PFF.
  • He ranks tied for second among defensive tackles with 3.5 sacks, trailing only Aaron Donald (4.0).
  • Jarrett has generated a pressure rate of 7.5 percent, the third-highest mark of his career through five weeks. Jarrett has recorded 12 stops, tackles for no gain, and two stuffs, tackles for a loss of yardage, among his 19 total tackles. He has produced 26.5 disruptions, which is a combination of pressures, hurries, and sacks. Jarrett ranks fifth among defensive tackles in disruptions this season and he is the only player in that top five that was not selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

In all honesty, though, what Jarrett means to this team cannot be quantified simply on stats alone. He leads not only in a stat line, but also everywhere else, too.

"I've been in this business a long time and sometimes guys get new contracts, then all of a sudden, they don't look quite as good as they did when they were trying to get the new contract," Pees said. "He's playing better after he got the new contract, which is exactly what you want that guy to be. He gets rewarded and he's rewarding us. To me, that's why he's a great player and a great person."

Though Jarrett has been the talk of the league for the last seven days, he's out for redemption. Jarrett on a normal day strikes fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators across the league. An angry and vengeful Jarrett? Watch out.


4. Running the ball vs. the league's best

As I previously stated, this San Francisco defense is a good one, one of the best, in fact.

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 something the team struggled to do early against the Buccaneers' veteran defense last Sunday. And we saw what happened in the first half when they did, as the Falcons entire offensive operation stalled in a way that made them become too one-dimensional as they forced themselves into too many third-and-long situations.

Arthur Smith said on Wednesday that this 49ers defense is one of the best at "getting people off track." The Falcons offense is at its best when the run can supplement positive yardage on first and second down, thus keeping Atlanta on track. Not being able to do so early didn't fly against the Bucs and it won't against the 49ers.

"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."

5. Who suits up for the 49ers

Very rarely do I make note of other team's injuries. But what San Francisco is going through as a defense cannot be missed. They may be one of the most potent defenses in the league currently, but they'll be without some of their most productive defenders on Sunday.

Four San Francisco defenders have already been ruled out: DL Arik Armstead (foot), DT Javon Kinlaw (knee), CB Emmanuel Moseley (knee) and DB Jimmie Ward (hand). And there could be a potential to see more join them on the inactives lists on Sunday as DL Nick Bosa was listed as questionable with a groin injury.

This defense will look different on Sunday, but offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said that didn't change the way this Falcons offense prepared this week.

It's Week 6, after all. Injuries are bound to happen to every team. The Falcons are dealing with them, too. So, this means that Sunday's game could come down to which team has their reserves prepped and ready the most.

"Everybody's really good in this league, and we go out about the mindset of preparing for a number of different scenarios and situations," Ragone said. "The reality is we're preparing as if we're going to see their best roster, which is whoever they suit up on Sunday."

"We're getting our players ready to go. We know San Francisco defense will be ready to go. We have no doubt about that."

Take a look as the team rocks the red helmet as they put in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the San Francisco 49ers, presented by Gatorade.


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