Though a victory over reeling San Francisco is hardly grounds to think the Falcons have turned the corner, coach Bobby Petrino said he started to see signs that the foundation he and his coaching staff have tried to form might be coming together.
Getting solid offensive line play that allowed Atlanta to rush for a season-high 155 yards and having tailback Warrick Dunn finally find his chops gave Petrino some hope that his team can balance the offense and not have to rely so much on quarterback Joey Harrington to make plays with his arm.
Petrino said he has to see the running game work for another game or two before he's a believer, but he thinks the Falcons are on the right track.
"Until you can make big plays and consistently run the football it's going to come down to the fourth quarter, a battle in the fourth quarter," Petrino said. "We've been there a lot, and hopefully we'll continue what we did the other day and win it in the fourth quarter."
Left tackle Quinn Ojinnaka, a third-teamer with a nasty temperament and a knack for cut blocking, held his own in the run game vs. San Francisco, Petrino said. He wasn't quite as effective when Atlanta had to throw, but a heavy dose of two-tight end sets eased some of the requirements on Ojinnaka, a second-year player who was making his first NFL start.
Petrino also put fullback Ovie Mughelli to use. After months of being second-guessed for signing Mughelli to a six-year, $18 million contract, Petrino finally called on the masher to earn his paycheck. Mughelli threw some jarring lead blocks that allowed Dunn to rush for 100 yards for the first time this season.
By getting Dunn and Mughelli involved, Atlanta established a more physical mentality among its players and a confidence in the coaching staff to stick with the run game, even if there were some negative plays here and there.
The coaches "were just a little bit more bull-headed about doing it," Petrino said.
The Falcons are averaging 98.9 rushing yards per game and are still a long way off from being where Petrino ultimately wants to be. He still would like a big tailback to carry the brunt of the workload, and that's not going to happen this season.
Atlanta also plans to beef up the offensive line with road-graders, which will be a top priority in the draft and in free agency. The Falcons feel positive about rookie left guard Justin Blalock, even though he started slowly.
--TB Warrick Dunn said he planned on treating the offensive line to dinner after it got him to 100 yards for the first time this season. When informed that the O-linemen eat a lot more these days after years of them having to meet weight restrictions to execute the zone-blocking scheme, Dunn changed his tune.
"Gift certificates," he said.
--"It'd be nice to score 41 points." -- Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, referring to the Saints' point total in a victory over Jacksonville. Atlanta has not scored more than 26 points this season.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--The severity of TB Jerious Norwood's right ankle injury was not disclosed by coach Bobby Petrino on Monday. Norwood was limping on his leg after the game but was not forced to wear a supportive boot or use any support devises to walk.
--RT Tyson Clabo could either be replaced or moved to left tackle if starter Todd Weiner returns from left knee surgery Wednesday, as expected. Weiner was active for Sunday's game against San Francisco, but he did not play.
--PR Adam Jennings had his best game of the season vs. San Francisco, averaging 11.5 yards per return. Jennings also returned one kickoff (after Jerious Norwood got hurt) for 28 yards.
"He did a good job holding up the center," Petrino said of Lewis. "That's a tough job. A lot of times you're trying to keep the linebackers free and play your assignment. He played hard. He ran to the ball. (Backup) Montavious Stanley only played 16 plays, so Trey played a lot of snaps."
--WR Joe Horn had a season-high four receptions vs. San Francisco to bring his season total to 18.
REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- QB Joey Harrington completed just 14 of 25 passes for 138 yards with an interception and posted a 55.1 passer rating. He also failed to make good decisions at times, once throwing to Michael Jenkins on third down well short of the yard marker. However, he made some key throws in tough situations. Coach Bobby Petrino would like to throw more, but he wouldn't like Harrington to be the guy to throw more.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Atlanta surpassed the 100-yard mark (155) for just the second time this season, and TB Warrick Dunn did the heavy lifting (27 for 100, 1 TD). Petrino finally stuck with the run, and he had Dunn roll behind FB Ovie Mughelli. Mughelli also carried the ball twice, once for a 1-yard touchdown -- the first rushing TD of his career.
PASS DEFENSE: A-minus -- A ferocious rush, led by DE John Abraham, sacked Alex Smith twice but kept him under duress enough to where Smith threw three interceptions. Safeties Lawyer Milloy and Jimmy Williams each had one, and CB DeAngelo Hall copped his third of the season.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- The Falcons didn't get gashed, but they still gave up some untimely big gainers on cutback runs. Had Frank Gore played, Atlanta could have been in trouble.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- By far the best overall performance of the season, save for a handful of penalties that negated nice returns. Michael Koenen boomed kickoffs and punts, and PR Adam Jennings had his best game of the season (two punt returns, 11.5 yards; one kickoff return, 28 yards).
COACHING: B-minus -- Petrino stuck with the running game instead of asking Harrington to do too much. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer made some key adjustments about where to attack after the 49ers scored on their opening drive. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg had his crew playing gonzo style with the extra week to prepare.