The five keys

SFI's five keys for the 49ers in today's season opener against the Atlanta Falcons:

1. NO MIND GAMES: The Niners can't get caught up in a game of we-know-that-they-know-that-we-know-that-they-know-that-we-know just because their two coordinators from last year – Jim Mora and Greg Knapp – are now running the Falcons as the team's head coach and offensive coordinator. If the Niners spend too much time trying to out-think the Falcons in the coaches' box because of the familiarity between the two teams, it will be wasted energy that can be better spent focusing on what San Francisco does best – regardless of whether or not the Falcons might know what is coming.

2. RIDE KEVAN BARLOW: The Niners need to hitch their wagon to the fourth-year tailback from the start and let him lead them forward. San Francisco must feed the ball to its new starting tailback early and often and let him work against an Atlanta defense that certainly is as unproven as the Niners' offense. Barlow is the key for the 49ers' attack. If he gets going, San Francisco gets going. Even if its slow going for Barlow at the start, the Niners must keep giving him the ball. And then give it to him again.

3. SPY MICHAEL VICK: He's the Falcon who can most hurt the Niners in the open field, particularly since San Francisco's speedy linebackers have a tendency to over-run plays, which could be more prominent early in the season while they're still developing their synchronicity as a unit. This will be Jamie Winborn's role on passing downs, and he must stay close to Vick as the pocket begins to break down, because the Atlanta QB won't hesitate to scoot if he sees open spaces. And once he finds those voids, it will take a while for anybody to catch him.

4. PROTECT TIM RATTAY: After Rattay led the Niners to impressive victories over St. Louis and Pittsburgh in his first two NFL starts last year, Green Bay was next on San Francisco's schedule, and Packers defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was waiting with a blitz package that pressured Rattay into ineffectiveness, mainly because his line didn't give him time to throw. Donatell is now Atlanta's defensive coordinator and, as the Niners may remember, Atlanta's new head coach likes to blitz the quarterback, too.

5. CONTROL THE CLOCK: This is why it's so important that Barlow gets at least 20 carries today. The Niners must keep their offense on the field and sustain drives to give their beleaguered defensive line a break. The Niners will be working in three backup defensive linemen that just joined the team four days ago, and despite them being new to the situation, they will have to play minutes to give the starting front four some breathers. If starting ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter and tackles Bryant Young and Anthony Adams are forced to remain on the field for long periods of time, they will tire, and the results could be devastating for the home team.


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