The Atlanta Falcons returned to the friendly confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and played their best game of the 2022 season. Against one of the best defensive teams in the NFL, Atlanta’s offense looked sharp and efficient while once again dominating on the ground.
Defensively, the Falcons made enough big plays, including a fumble recovery for a touchdown, to stifle any real threat by a dangerous 49ers offense. It was a victory in all three phases, and a beautiful sight to see.
Here are some of the main takeaways and moments from Sunday.
The offense looked very effective on their opening drive
Against arguably the NFL’s best defense, albeit one that entered Sunday very banged up, the Falcons looked sharp to start the game. Their first drive lasted 11 plays and covered 74 yards before ending with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota to tight end MyCole Pruitt. Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus had the big play of the drive, getting great separation on a deep slant and gaining 37 yards on a smooth catch-and-run.
Atlanta converted three third-down attempts on the drive and came away with a red-zone touchdown. Both situations are areas the Falcons have sought to improve this season.
AJ Terrell and Jaylinn Hawkins tag team a touchdown
Just when the momentum was beginning to settle back into neutral territory, the Falcons defense made a huge play late in the first quarter. AJ Terrell was in the right place at the right time to snag a Jeff Wilson Jr. fumble on a big third-and-1, and he raced down the left sideline toward the end zone. Just before getting pushed out of bounds, Terrell dove towards the pylon with the ball extended in hopes of getting the touchdown.
During his efforts, Terrell lost control of the ball, which rolled into the end zone. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who was trailing the action, wisely picked up the loose ball and was ultimately credited with the touchdown for the heads up play.
A big special teams play got the 49ers back into it
After falling behind 14-0, San Francisco got the ball into the hands of its best playmakers and marched down the field to score its first touchdown of the afternoon on a pass to Brandon Aiyuk. Following a quick three-and-out by the Falcons, the 49ers got the break they’d been looking for. KhaDarel Hodge had a clean hit on punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud just as he caught the ball, however the 49ers’ returner bounced off of Hodge and raced for a 35-yard gain to flip the field.
Four plays later, Aiyuk was back in the end zone after an 11-yard reception to tie the game for San Francisco. It was a big momentum swing on a special teams play that almost started with a crushing tackle by the Falcons. Against good teams, those little mistakes can make all the difference.
A bit of deja vu to end the first half
The Falcons are, if nothing else, a very competent offensive team. It may not be flashy or explosive at the most consistent clip, but this unit does a great job sustaining drives. The game’s momentum had completely abandoned Atlanta after the 49ers tied the game at 14-apiece. However, the Falcons strung together a workmanlike 11-play drive that covered 65 yards and ended in a Marcus Mariota rushing touchdown. Mariota’s legs were crucial on the drive and helped the Falcons out of a couple jams, and he connected with Drake London on a big contested catch.
Most importantly, however, the Falcons came away with a touchdown to regain the lead heading into halftime.
Kyle Pitts (finally) gets into the end zone
When the Falcons broke the huddle on a third-and-3 from the 7-yard line, it looked like a one-on-one matchup with Kyle Pitts was there if Mariota wanted it. When the pre-snap motion then left Pitts all alone to the left side of the formation against a single press defender, it seemed impossible to ignore.
That look was exactly what Mariota wanted, and he delivered a decent enough ball to Pitts for the star tight end’s first touchdown of the season. Pitts hasn’t been involved nearly as much as he should be, but it was good to see him get into the end zone.
Terrell and Casey Hayward were injured during the game
The 49ers tried to connect on a deep shot to McCloud early in the third quarter, and could not make the explosive play happen. It proved to be a costly play for the Falcons, however; star cornerback AJ Terrell grabbed at his right leg after running with McCloud in coverage and exited the field. He was looked at by trainers on the sideline and was eventually deemed questionable to return with a thigh injury.
Late in the fourth quarter, Casey Hayward was slung to the turf while trying to make a tackle on Deebo Samuel and was visibly shaken up. He walked off the field slowly with trainers and headed directly to the tunnel. It was later announced that Hayward had sustained a shoulder injury and was questionable to return.
Hawkins in the right place once again
Terrell’s absence didn’t prevent Atlanta’s secondary from making some big plays in the second half. Second-year corner Darren Hall filled in for Terrell, and he made an excellent pass breakup on a deep post shot to Aiyuk. On the following play, Hall diagnosed a late crossing route in zone coverage and perfectly timed his jump to knock the ball in the air, allowing Hawkins to intercept the pass. It was the second turnover of the day for Hawkins, and it killed a chance for the 49ers to cut into Atlanta’s lead.
Redemption for Marcus Mariota
With the calls for rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder growing louder, Mariota put together his best performance as Atlanta’s starting quarterback on Sunday. He had a lot of help from the running game, as has often been the case this season, but Mariota made a handful of plays that truly helped the Falcons win. He looked decisive with the ball and escaped pressure on several occasions to keep drives alive.
Mariota finished the game 13-of-14 for 129 yards and two touchdown passes, and he added 50 yards on the ground and scored one rushing touchdown.