SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It was fourth-and-goal on the San Francisco 49ers 2-yard line with 2:56 remaining. The Falcons, who have the league's most prolific running back and receiver combination, elected to kick a field goal instead of try to take the lead with a touchdown.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn was banking on his defense getting another stop and forcing the Blaine Gabbert-led 49ers to punt after three straight runs. After all, Quinn's defense shut out San Francisco in the second half. And the 49ers are owners of arguably the league's worst run-blocking offensive line against his third-ranked run defense.
Quinn had two timeouts and the two-minute warning to work with. If the defense held up, the offense would have gotten the ball back with roughly two minutes left, needing just a goal field goal to steal the road victory. Quinn also burned a timeout on a bad challenge earlier in the half.
But the plan didn't work. Instead of getting the ball back, his offense never got back on the field. The 49ers ran for two first downs, with the first being a designed bootleg for Gabbert, and went into victory formation.
In back-to-back weeks, Quinn's team suffered late losses to the Buccaneers and 49ers, who are 6-11 combined.
With the loss, the Falcons fell to 6-3.
"I thought we were getting the stops defensively," Quinn said. "We'd get the kick, get stops, use our timeouts and then go attack on offense. We're a really good two-minute team on offense."
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman finished with just 12 carries on 12 yards, while the NFL's leading receiver, Julio Jones reached the 1,000-yard mark for the season (it's Week 9), with 137 yards on 10 receptions.
"Looking back, yeah, it's always a chance to second guess," Quinn said. "You have two ways to go win it."
On the drive, which started at Atlanta's 33, quarterback Matt Ryan completed seven of nine throws. One of his incompletions was a fade in the end zone to Jones, which was deflected by cornerback Dontae Johnson, who was thrust into a starting role while the 49ers were missing three of their top corners with injuries.
"They didn’t blink. Locked their jaw. Really proud of them," Tomsula said of his reserve cornerbacks, including Marcus Cromartie who led the 49ers with seven tackles after getting promoted from the practice squad Saturday.
"Proud of the way the guys fought. We had young guys that didn’t blink and worked hard. Our coaching staff this week, obviously with all these guys, a lot of work went into that. And, the way the players worked with the coaches, and the way that went,” Tomsula said.
Ryan threw for 303 yards on 30 of 45 completions. But the offense couldn't muster much on the ground, netting just 17 yards on 14 attempts as a team. If they would have been able to run for two more at the end of their final possession, they likely win the game.
If the Falcons didn't score on fourth down, the 49ers would have been given the ball near their own goal line, where they have allowed two safeties this season.
"I trusted in (Quinn) and I thought he made the decision that he was confident our defense would get the stop," Ryan said. "I felt like we were going to have a chance to go down the field and get the field goal to win. That's part of the game, but everyone in this organization and in that locker room has Q's back."
Freeman, entered Sunday as the NFL's leading rusher, and did not get a carry once the Falcons got inside the 10.
"The way (the 49ers) played us in those situations dictated the ball goes to another spot," Ryan said. "That's just part of the deal when you get into the red zone and they pressure. You have to use your pressure options and we did that. We just didn't find a way to get in the end zone."
After the game NaVorro Bowman and his defense played, he expected Atlanta to take the safe route and kick the field goal.
"Their running back had 12 yards on the day, so I wasn’t surprised," Bowman said. "They wanted to put some points on the board and once again it was the D-Line who played a great game today.”
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com