Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Falcons

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's battle of struggling NFC teams between the 49ers and Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch and injury impact, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the game.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
SITE: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
SURFACE: FieldTurf
RECORDS: 49ers 2-5, Falcons 1-6

SERIES: 73rd meeting. 49ers lead series, 44-27-1. The former NFC West opponents last played in 2004, a game the Falcons won 21-19 in San Francisco.

KEYS TO THE GAME: 49ers QB Alex Smith has earned respect from teammates for playing through the pain of his separated left (non-throwing) shoulder, but to break a five-game losing streak San Francisco needs him to shake off the rust and start improving the league's worst offense (220.4 yards per game). The 49ers' are further hindered with RB Frank Gore battling an ankle injury. Expect Smith to target Falcons RCB Lewis Sanders, who sees plenty of action playing opposite DeAngelo Hall. ... In games started by QB Joey Harrington, the Falcons have seen opponents bring significantly more pressure than when Byron Leftwich is under center. Atlanta would be wise to attempt to establish their meager ground game to take some heat off Harrington, who will face a 49ers defense that has shown a lot of different looks. RB Jerious Norwood hinted the coaching staff has worked on ways to get him more touches -- whether that's through the air or on the ground remains to be seen.

FAST FACTS: Smith leads the NFC with a 0.8 interception percentage (one INT in 127 attempts). ... Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall leads the NFL with 367 yards on interception returns since 2005.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1,196 -- Total regular-season points scored by Atlanta vs. San Francisco. 25 -- RB Frank Gore's streak of consecutive games with at least one run of 10 yards or more that came to an end last Sunday.

"We have a lot of games left. We've lost a lot of games in a row. It's time to focus on Atlanta. If we thought about how we've done, it's only going to get worse." -- 49ers QB Alex Smith, on his thoughts about reflecting on the team's five-game losing streak.
"I made my run last night. I'm that guy with the full size. I told myself if we ever got into the position where we could provide full-size candy bars, that's what we were going to do." -- Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington, on the Halloween candy he doled out.

49ERS GAME PLAN: There is little question that the 49ers offense is floundering. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler has been unable to get the pieces to fit together for the 49ers. They rank last in the league in total offense. Although things have looked better the past two weeks, the offense has not fully clicked, mostly because of the quarterback position. Veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer stepped aside last week when Alex Smith returned to the starting lineup. However, Smith's play was rusty, at best, after coming back from a separated throwing shoulder he sustained four weeks ago. Smith was consistently high with his passes. The 49ers need him to be sharper this week against the Falcons. The 49ers also need RB Frank Gore and the running game to get going. Although Hostler was criticized earlier in the season for being too conservative, the 49ers have to understand what they do best and continue to get the ball in Gore's hands. In the passing game, Smith and talented TE Vernon Davis have shown signs of getting on the same page. Davis and former Falcons WR Ashley Lelie are the only big-play threats out of the passing game. Defensively, the 49ers pass rush has been horrible. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has put a lot of pressure on the secondary to stick with receivers longer. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has to find the right combinations in the blitz packages to put heat on Falcons QB Joey Harrington.

FALCONS GAME PLAN: With the 49ers allowing 123 rushing yards per game, the Falcons have to try and churn out yards on the ground against the 49ers' 3-4 front. Atlanta doesn't face many 3-4 teams, so it could take some time getting settled in. However, the Falcons offensive line is athletic enough to get to linebackers and create seams for Dunn and Norwood. With TE Alge Crumpler questionable, establishing some form of running game also is essential. FB Ovie Mughelli could see a lot of action as a lead blocker to try and slow down San Francisco's rookie LB sensation, Patrick Willis. The Falcons could also try to run off tackle since Tyson Clabo and Ojinnaka are crafty cut blockers and can get players on the ground. If the Falcons are unable to run, the 49ers, like most other teams the Falcons have faced, will probably blitz up the middle, which would force a lot of quick passes to the flanks.

--- 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who has lived up to all the expectations ad he leads the 49ers with 94 tackles in seven games, vs. Falcons RBs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, who have combined to rush for 564 yards.
--- 49ers RT Joe Staley, a rookie who has generally played well as the full-time starter, vs. Falcons LDE Jamaal Anderson, whom the Falcons selected with the No. 8 overall draft pick.
--- 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who is likely to make his third start this season in place of Jonas Jennings, vs. Falcons RDE John Abraham, who has recorded five sacks and is being counted upon to supply some pressure and a few hits on Alex Smith.
--- 49ers TE Vernon Davis, who is starting to assert himself as a top weapon in the offense, vs. Falcons SLB Michael Boley, who leads the Falcons with 69 tackles and has two interceptions.
--- 49ers LG Larry Allen vs. Falcons NT Trey Lewis. The 49ers' 14-year veteran has fresh meat to contend with in Lewis, a sixth-round draft pick who will be making his first start at NT. Lewis started twice at the three-technique DT but is not in charge of holding the point of attack in the center guard gap. Allen's veteran craftiness could confound the talented Lewis, who is still learning the ropes of the game after playing collegiately at Division II Washburn University. If Allen can gain control against Lewis, the 49ers might finally be able to get a running game going.
--- Inept offense vs. inept offense. The Falcons rank 30th in scoring at 13.6 points per game. The 49ers are 31st with 12.6 points per game. San Francisco is ranked last in the NFL in total offense, in large part because it is only throwing for 132 yards per game, a staggeringly woeful total for a team that has had to throw because it has fallen behind. The 49ers could be poised to get well, though, because Atlanta ranks 24th in total defense.

QB Alex Smith made it through last week's game despite taking some hits on his right shoulder, which was separated Sept. 30. Although the shoulder was extremely painful after the game, Smith said on Wednesday that he was again feeling the way he did before the game. RB Frank Gore is expected to play Sunday with a sore right ankle that he admits limited him a little in last week's loss to the Saints. Gore aggravated the ankle sprain, but he plans to continue to treat the injury and play on Sundays. WR Darrell Jackson returned to limited practice this week after missing last week's game with a quadriceps strain. Jackson is expected to play and possibly start Sunday. CB Walt Harris is doubtful to play with a left knee sprain he sustained in last week's game against the Saints. LT Jonas Jennings is not expected to play due to an ankle sprain that also kept him out of last week's game. Jennings has missed all or parts of 22 of the 39 games since he signed a seven-year, $36 million contract with the 49ers as a free agent in 2005. S Keith Lewis is likely to be held out of action for the third consecutive game with a hamstring strain he sustained Oct. 7.
FALCONS: With backup nose tackle Montavious Stanley out, the Falcons are thin at nose tackle. Lewis is tough and young and can handle the majority of snaps, but over the course of a game, especially having to bang with LG Larry Allen and C Eric Heitmann, Lewis could get worn down. Undersized DT Jonathan Babineaux (285 pounds) could slide to nose tackle at times but he can't be used there too much. The Falcons might also use DE Chauncey Davis to spell Lewis.



--- K Joe Nedney was fined $7,500 by the NFL for an obscene gesture he made toward a heckling fan Sunday in the 49ers' loss to the Saints. Nedney kicked a 29-yard field goal, but his ensuing kickoff went out of bounds. He extended his middle finger at a fan, an image that was captured by TV cameras. For the season, Nedney has made eight of nine field goals and is responsible for 32 of the team's 88 points.
--- RS Michael Lewis was excused from practice to go home to Louisiana for a family emergency. The 49ers hope he'll be available to join the team Sunday for the game in Atlanta. Lewis has returned 14 punts (with just one fair catch) and has averaged 8.5 yards.
-- FB Frank Gore went through limited practice this week. He is expected to play Sunday against the Falcons, but he is not expected to be 100 percent. Gore has a right ankle sprain that he admits affected his play last week against the Saints. Gore has 435 yards rushing on 110 carries this season.
--- LT Adam Snyder is expected to start his second game in a row for regular starter Jonas Jennings, who is out with an ankle sprain. Snyder would be making his third start of the season at left tackle.

--- TE Alge Crumpler (knee, ankle) still has not practiced since Atlanta's 31-10 Monday night loss to the Giants and is questionable for Sunday's game.
--- LB Keith Brooking is having a rugged go of things playing MLB but he is still held in high regard by the franchise because he's playing out of position. He is being viewed as taking one for the team because the Falcons had no one else to play the position. Personnel officials feel Brooking still has a lot of football left and he could be moved back to WLB next season - if a better MLB can be signed in free agency or drafted.
--- With backup NT Montavious Stanley possibly out Sunday with a knee injury suffered during Wednesday's practice, the Falcons signed NT Tim Anderson, who was released from Buffalo less than two weeks ago. Anderson, a former third-round pick from Ohio State, spent four seasons with the Bills, starting 17 games. Anderson is the third player the Falcons have signed from Buffalo this season. DS Mike Schneck and OT Terrance Pennington are the others.
--- To make room for Anderson, the Falcons waived CB Brent Grimes, who was promoted off the practice squad this week. Grimes was in his second season on Atlanta's practice squad. There is a chance he could be re-signed early next week.



The 49ers rank 26th in the NFL with just 12 sacks in their first seven games. Their lack of a pass rush appears to be taking its toll on the 49ers' secondary, which last week surrendered 336 passing yards to the Saints' Drew Brees.

"I don't think it's killing us," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said of the pass rush. "There are some other things that are putting the fork in it, too. (But) it's not helping us. We have to create some things and do a better job."

The 49ers' pass rush supplied half of their sacks in a Week 2 victory over the Rams. In that game, 49ers defensive end Bryant Young recorded three of the 49ers' six sacks on the game.

In the 49ers' 3-4 defense, most of the pass rush is supposed to come from the outside linebackers. However, Manny Lawson was lost to an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee during a practice before a Week 3 game against the Steelers.

"Any time you lose a good player, obviously there's a drop off," Nolan said.

Lawson did not have any sacks in the first two games, but at least he provided that threat from the strong-side position. Free-agent acquisition Tully Banta-Cain, the starting weak-side linebacker, was expected to be the team's top pass-rush threat.

Thus far, he has yet to apply any consistent pressure on the quarterback. Banta-Cain, who has 1.5 sacks this season, has been limited the past two games with an ankle injury.

"He's been banged up the last few weeks, so I'm not going to put the last two weeks on him," Nolan said. "The last two weeks, he hasn't practiced much. It looks like he's getting back to full-go now. When he gets to full-go, he's going to need to do something."

Things have almost fully reverted back to the way they were before the Falcons drafted Michael Vick in 2001.

On top of a 1-6 start, the Falcons-49ers game Sunday will be blacked out locally, adding more salt to the widening wound that the season has become.

It's the first time since team owner Arthur Blank bought the team in 2002 that Atlanta has not sold out and also the first time a home game won't be televised. The Falcons had sold out 56 consecutive games, according to the team.

The franchise sold the majority of the 71,000 Georgia Dome seats for this season but it held a few thousand single-game tickets for each of its eight home games for walk-up purchases or other requests.

More than 3,000 tickets were unclaimed by the NFL deadline Thursday, which was far too many for any sponsor or business partner to buy. The Falcons declined to ask for an extension, as projections were too discouraging.

The Falcons have four more home games, two against NFC South foes Tampa Bay and New Orleans and one, Thanksgiving night, against Indianapolis (NFL Network).

Atlanta's season finale is against Seattle Dec. 30.

Besides the losses, the Falcons have not had a star emerge to draw marquee appeal. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall is a two-time Pro Bowler with two interceptions, but the biggest headlines he has drawn is for criticizing coaching and front-office decisions and for a heated meltdown on the sideline in a loss to Carolina.

Tailback Warrick Dunn, tight end Alge Crumpler and middle linebacker Keith Brooking were the most recognizable veterans on the team but none of them has played at the level fans are accustomed to.

Upstarts Michael Boley and Jerious Norwood clearly are building blocks but Boley plays a low-profile position (outside linebacker) and Norwood (running back) isn't getting enough touches to make himself a must-see player.

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