Inside slant: Atlanta Falcons Week 9 preview

Need the inside scoop on the Buccaneers' NFC South rivals? Look no further than the "Inside Slant." Every Thursday Bucsblitz.com offers a preview of the weekend's games for the rest of the division. Go inside Atlanta's preparations for Sunday's game, including key matchups, game analysis and injuries.

For the first time since 2001, the Falcons are in danger of having a home game blacked out on local television. Atlanta (1-6) plays host to the 49ers (2-5) Sunday.

"This has been frustrating and been a disappointment for everyone," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "Our fans have the right to make whatever decision they want to make on that. When you're 1-6, it's all about supply and demand. Simple economics. Obviously, there's not a lot of demand for our football team right now."

The Falcons have until 1 p.m. Thursday to sell approximately 3,500 tickets. If not, it will be just like the old days, when home games weren't on TV. The local Fox television affiliate, which is scheduled to broadcast the game, said it would not purchase the remaining seats. The franchise sold out 56 consecutive games and said it had a waiting list for season tickets.

The shortage for Sunday's game stems from the failure to sell some of the thousands of single-game seats that are held for each game. "I can't afford it," tailback Warrick Dunn said about picking up the tab for the tickets. "I donate enough to my foundation. Do I understand why people are hesitant? We don't have the best record so fans are going to be a little hesitant."

Some developments to possibly lure undecided fans in aren't great either.

Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler, who missed his first start vs. New Orleans Oct. 21 in more than two years because of a sore left knee and a sprained ankle could be on the shelf again. His absence could further restrict an offense that barely ranks ahead of San Francisco with 13.66 points per game.

"I'm trying to find a way to progress to the point where I can go out there and play extremely effective," Crumpler said. "When I get to that point, hopefully, in the near future, I can go out there and help our team win games. I know we are capable of it. We just have to turn the corner and do it."

To boot, the team's two best defenders, end John Abraham and outside linebacker Michael Boley, missed practice Wednesday. Abraham got sick during a team meeting and was sent home. Boley had an ankle injury. Their playing status for Sunday is questionable.

And to only add insult to injuries, backup nose tackle Montavious Stanley suffered a knee injury at practice that required him getting an MRI exam. Though an injury to the No. 2 nose tackle wouldn't normally be cause for alarm, it is with the Falcons.

The injury came a week after the team cut starting nose tackle Grady Jackson and replaced him with rookie Trey Lewis. Lewis is the only nose tackle on the roster. Backup three-technique tackle Jonathan Babineaux could back up Lewis if Stanley can't go Sunday. The Falcons also could move end Chauncey Davis inside to spell Lewis at times. The huge concern, though, is that Babineaux and starting defensive tackle Rod Coleman are still nursing knee injuries and are not at full strength. If either of those players gets nicked, the Falcons would be incredibly weak up the middle.

Coming off the bye, players said they met Wednesday and decided not to dwell on the 1-6 start and try to proceed as if it's a nine-game season.

"Last year in Miami, we stated 1-5 and by Thanksgiving we were .500," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "It's very possible. With exception of the New York (Giants) game (31-10 loss), there hasn't been a game that we've been out of. We've had a chance to win every game. It's not like we're trying to make huge strides in one week off. We just need to regroup."

The Falcons have lost three games by an average of 5.6 points, so players don't feel this is an awful team that can't compete.

"You have to have the respect, not just in this locker room, but your peers around the league, people watch all the film," tailback Warrick Dunn said. "What you do on Sundays shows a lot so I think guys have to continue to go out and play hard and leave it on the field. If guys do that, hopefully we'll get that one break that turns things around for us."

SERIES HISTORY

72nd meeting. 49ers lead the series 44-26-1. Atlanta opened the 2004 season with a 21-19 victory. The Falcons led 21-6 before San Francisco scored 13 unanswered points. Aaron Beasley's 85-yard interception return set up Dunn's decisive nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Tight end Alge Crumpler had a then-career-high six catches in the last meeting with the 49ers.

--Former Falcons wide receiver Ashley Lelie, signed by San Francisco as a free agent, has just five receptions for 72 yards. He made his first start of the season in the 49ers' most recent game (and loss) to New Orleans.

--The 49ers and Falcons have split the last six meetings.

--The Falcons recently signed 49ers offensive tackle Harvey Dahl. Dahl will most likely serve as the swing tackle for this game.

--Two of three previous meetings went into overtime. San Francisco won both.

BY THE NUMBERS

1,196 -- Total regular-season points scored by Atlanta vs. San Francisco.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"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'll dole out.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Atlanta is going to try and force turnovers by getting a lot of pressure on nicked up 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (right shoulder injury). The pressure will come from the edges since Smith is a good runner.

If the Falcons can get pressure without blitzing, that would allow OLB Michael Boley to stick with TE Vernon Davis, a matchup that could be worth watching.

"I know Vernon real well," Boley said. "We've got the same agent. I know about him. I will give him a call here in a minute. They've got some weapons. They throw a whole (lot) of things at you. It's going to be real tough."

If Atlanta were forced to blitz, it probably would do so out of nickel packages so FS Jimmy Williams or NB Chris Crocker can stick with Davis. The Falcons want to prevent matchups with Davis and SS Lawyer Milloy.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--TB Jerious Norwood said that the coaching staff has implemented some plays to get him more touches. He was not specific as to whether those would be running or passing plays. Norwood, Atlanta's most dangerous home-run threat, has averaged 9.1 touches per game (runs and receptions).

--PR Adam Jennings is coming off his best punt return game of the season. The first-year returner averaged 9.3 yards on four returns vs. the Saints Oct. 21. Coach Bobby Petrino said he finally received the blocking to clear enough space.

"I'm encouraged. I think we're doing a lot better job on our holdups," Petrino said. "We've done a lot better job on our vise to give Adam some room after the catch. He's starting to get to the point where he's hitting it downhill and understands a nine-yard punt return is a good punt return."

--There doesn't seem to be much apprehension from the coaching staff about second-year LT Quinn Ojinnaka making his first start vs. San Francisco.

"His preparation went very well," Petrino said. "He's into it. He understands his assignments. He knows what he's doing. He's been sitting there waiting for this opportunity for a long time. He's handled it very maturely. He'll be all right. He played a lot in preseason. He goes against good guys in practice every day. He needs to make sure he's focused on one play at a time."

--Rookie OLB Stephen Nicholas (high-ankle sprain) participated in most of Wednesday's practice. He said he is moving fairly well but he is questionable for Sunday's game. Nicholas said pushing off the right ankle is uncomfortable and he's limited by the inability to drive forward to laterally.

--QB Joey Harrington needs 115 yards to reach the 14,000-yard passing mark for his career.

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.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

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.

INJURY IMPACT

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.


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