Bottom falling out on floundering 49ers

On another day of bad football and even worse offense Sunday at the Georgia Dome, the 49ers officially joined the dregs of the NFL. With Alex Smith committing four turnovers, San Francisco took yet another step backward, losing 20-16 to the hapless Atlanta Falcons to stretch its losing skid to six games and put in question just about everything to do with this Mike Nolan operation.

To be sure, the Falcons are a bad NFL team. So what's that say about the 49ers, who couldn't manage to beat them despite having an afternoon full of opportunities to do so?

Well, the answer is obvious. And the 49ers aren't going to like it.

But as San Francisco's nosedive continues, rock bottom has come into clear view. The 49ers now match the Falcons with a 2-6 record, and only the 0-8 St. Louis Rams are worse in the NFC. And everybody knows how bad the Rams are, a downtrodden team that gave San Francisco one of its victories. By one point, no less. The 49ers are four points away from being an 0-8 team themselves.

The Falcons looked ready to give it away a few times Sunday. But when it came down to crunch time, the 49ers just couldn't take it.

"We've got to do better than that, as we all know," said Nolan, whose team now has two six-game losing streaks in his three seasons as coach – and this one might not be over yet with the Seahawks in Seattle up next. "It's a disappointment to the players, coaches and the fans as well."

That about covers it. And perhaps most disappointing was the play of Smith, who again competed with a taped-up throwing shoulder but was sorely lacking when the 49ers needed him most to make a play.

Smith was off with his passes most of the afternoon, and twice overthrew receivers that had gotten behind the Atlanta defense on plays that might have resulted in San Francisco touchdowns had Smith been on target. Smith was 17 of 38 for 149 yards passing to finish with a sight-for-sore-eyes 22.8 passer rating. Those numbers say it all.

And then, in the final 19 minutes of this dismal afternoon, there was Smith's lost fumble and three interceptions, one of them a bad decision thrown into tight coverage and the other two coming on floating deep throws late in the fourth quarter that ended any hopes of San Francisco pulling out the victory.

"Whenever we talk about turnovers, it gets rough," Nolan said. "In the first half, I thought we played much cleaner in that respect. I thought the defense in the first half struggled a little bit. But in the second half, we kind of swapped roles. The offense had some turnovers and the defense stiffened up."

And, thanks to that defense bailing out the offense several times after turnovers or stalled drives, the 49ers were in a position to take control midway through the final quarter after Smith assembled a drive that started at the San Francisco 23-yard line and, eight plays later, had the 49ers looking at a first-and-goal situation from the Atlanta 10.

Playing without tailback Frank Gore, who did not dress for the game because of the bum ankle that has hampered him for weeks, Smith handed off to Michael Robinson, who was stuffed for no gain on first down.

On second down, while backpedaling and facing a heavy rush, Smith managed to get rid of the ball with blitzing linebacker Demorrio Williams in his face and dump it off to tight end Vernon Davis, who turned the corner and headed for the goal line.

But just when it appeared he was going to hit paydirt, Davis was tripped up from behind by safety Chris Crocker and lunged forward to the 1.

"I have no idea where that guy came from," said Davis, who set a career high in receptions for the second consecutive week with a game-high seven catches for 77 yards. "I was headed for the end zone."

Davis didn't get there, and the 49ers called timeout with 8:37 remaining to play, with Nolan saying he wanted to discuss the possibilities of the third- and fourth-down plays San Francisco planned to run in that situation.

But then the 49ers came out and called a predictable dive left with Robinson. The Falcons were waiting for it, the play developed slowly, and Robinson was stuffed for a three-yard loss back to the 4.

"I don't second-guess anything (the coaches) do," said Robinson, who had a nice game starting in place of Gore with 67 yards rushing on 17 carries, including a few tackle-breaking bursts. "They call it, we have to run it."

But once again, the masses will be questioning the play-calling of embattled first-year 49ers offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, whose offense was limited to 251 yards. But with these 49ers, that actually represents a good day.

Pushed back to the 4, Nolan had to change the strategy that forced San Francisco to burn a timeout it could have used at the end. "When they got penetration on that play," Nolan said, "it took us back there (to the 4), that's when we decided just to kick the field goal, just go for a one-point game. But it was unfortunate, certainly not what we prepared for."

Sounds like the broken record of the season for San Francisco's offense, which – after Joe Nedney's 22-yard field goal brought the Niners within 17-16 – got three more opportunities in the final eight minutes after a resilient 49ers defense held against an Atlanta offense that produced one first down the final four times it touched the ball. The Falcons were limited to 109 yards of offense after halftime.

But the 49ers went nowhere and punted on the first drive. The second ended with a pressured Smith throwing from his own goal line into the hands of cornerback DeAngelo Hall with intended receiver Darrell Jackson several yards away from the ball. Hall returned the pick to the 15, which led to Atlanta's final field goal that left San Francisco needing a touchdown or bust.

Starting at their own 20 with 70 seconds remaining and no timeouts, Smith's desperation pass deep down the right side had two Falcons – and no 49ers – fighting for the ball when it came down. Jimmy Williams made the pick for the Falcons on San Francisco's last gasp.

And it had all begun with such promise for the 49ers, who went 59 yards on 10 plays on their first possession to grab an early 7-0 lead after Maurice Hicks' slashing nine-yard touchdown run. San Francisco was looking good at that point, but it was a mirage. The 49ers produced just three Nedney field goals the rest of the way despite driving inside the Atlanta 14 twice. Another drive that ended with a Nedney field goal had reached the 27.

If the 49ers had been able to punch it in for a touchdown just once on those three occasions, it could have – and probably would have – turned the game in their favor.

But the 49ers just aren't that kind of team. And certainly, they're not that kind of offense.

"It's just the midpoint of the season, not where we want to be, but it is the midpoint," Nolan said. "So there's a lot of football left."

A lot of bad football, if this keeps up. And it's getting difficult to find reasons why it won't.

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