Injuries are a big part of every NFL team’s season, and San Francisco has dealt with plenty. In the 49ers’ first game since their last-second victory over the New Orleans Saints, they will need to overcome injuries to three of their five starting defensive backs.
San Francisco’s defense is coming off its worst performance of the season. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and MVP-candidate wide receiver Michael Thomas torched the 49ers for a season-high 46 points. To make things worse, the 49ers could potentially be without safety Jaquiski Tartt (ribs), cornerback Richard Sherman (hamstring) and nickel K’Waun Williams (concussion), who are all questionable for Sunday.
In their place would be Marcell Harris (six career starts), Emmanuel Moseley (eight career starts) and D.J. Reed (two career starts). Although Moseley has proved to be a quality starter this season (73.6 Pro Football Focus grade), Reed and Harris are rather unproven commodities. The 49ers must rely on their young defenders to not only earn a key-late season victory, but also clinch a spot in the postseason.
Normally, a receiver corps would be licking their chops at a short-handed defensive backfield like this, but the Falcons could be equally slim. Calvin Ridley, the team leader in touchdowns with seven, was placed on Injured Reserve this week and leading-receiver Julio Jones is questionable for Sunday.
If Jones, Sherman, Tartt and Williams are all inactive, expect a lot of experimenting by Atlanta’s offense, and a lot of safe zone coverages by the 49ers’ defense. Yet, just because both teams could be without some of their best talent, doesn’t mean they have no direction.
Atlanta still has quarterback Matt Ryan and tight end Austin Hooper. Hooper was one of the NFL’s best tight ends to start the season, but was sidelined for three games with an injury of his own. Doing most of his damage in the red zone, Hooper has six touchdowns and 640 receiving yards.
Despite possibly being without his best two receivers, Ryan won’t shy away from throwing the ball, especially downfield. Ryan has thrown under 30 passes just once this season, and that was when he was injured in the fourth quarter with 27 pass attempts. The gunslinger averages 40 attempts a game and has a 66.7 completion percentage. That, however, is mostly with Hooper, Jones and Ridley.
On Sunday, Hooper will be accompanied by Russell Gage (32 catches, 302 yards and a touchdown), Justin Hardy (16 catches for 155 yards), Christian Blake (11 catches for 91 yards) and Olamide Zaccheaus (one catch, 93 yards and a touchdown).
Defending those receivers should not be too difficult for a healthy San Francisco, but even if all three defensive backs are inactive, the 49ers should still be able to take control of the game.
San Francisco will still have middle linebacker Fred Warner, safety Jimmie Ward and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to defend the Atlanta pass-catchers, while also boasting one of the league’s best pass-rushes. One of the reasons San Francisco’s pass-defense has been so strong this season (first in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game) is its ability to get to the quarterback before he has a chance to find the open receiver.
This defensive game plan bodes well for the 49ers. Atlanta has surrendered the eighth most sacks in the NFL this season. San Francisco’s defense has the third most sacks. If those rankings stay true this Sunday, the 49ers’ defensive backs would only need to guard Atlanta’s receivers for so long, giving a vital advantage to San Francisco.