By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t quite discover a new version of offensive “triplets” on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium against the Atlanta Falcons, but what really matters is that the team broke a two-game losing streak with a 17-16 victory. The defense was excellent, and the offense did just enough to win the game as the 49ers head into their bye week with a 3-6 record.
San Francisco is now 3-2 at home this year, and despite starting the backup quarterback, the backup tight end, and the backup running back, the 49ers managed to win the game. Head Coach Jim Tomsula deserves a lot of credit for rallying his troops this week amid a lot of adversity and negative press to beat a playoff-caliber team.
Blaine Gabbert earned the victory in his first NFL start since 2013, although he wasn’t spectacular by any means. He completed 60 percent of his 25 attempts for 185 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Gabbert did that without significant help from the running game, which averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in this game. However, the 49ers ran the ball 39 times, and that helped keep them in the game even though no one on the offense was particularly efficient.
Running back Shaun Draughn had 58 yards on 16 carries, while Gabbert himself added 32 yards on nine scrambles—including a huge first down late in the game that all but buried the Falcons chances at a comeback. Tight end Garrett Celek had two TD receptions, while six 49ers receivers had at least two catches each. Perhaps the best sign was that the team was 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions, which gave the team some badly needed confidence (see below).
It’s hard to knock a decimated defense for holding the strong Atlanta offense to just 302 yards. The Falcons abandoned the run in this game, gaining just 17 yards on the ground overall on 14 carries. Quarterback Matt Ryan still threw for 303 yards, but it took him 45 attempts to do it. The 49ers defense didn’t force a turnover, and they let Atlanta control the clock with almost 32 minutes of possession.
However, the S.F. squad came up big on third downs, holding the Falcons to just a 5-of-15 conversion rate. Thus, Atlanta never really was able to put together significant scoring drives. The 49ers defense held the Falcons offense to just on TD, making Atlanta settle for three field goals that ultimately decided the game.
Special Teams: A-
Bradley Pinion and Phil Dawson did their jobs well, and the return game was sound. The Falcons did get a 50-yard kickoff return, but overall, there were no bad surprises on special teams for San Francisco. In a one-point game, that is a good thing.
Tomsula deserves a lot of credit for his gutsy moves this week and his gutsy decisions on Sunday. Going for it twice on fourth down, including once early in the game, set the tone for the team and told the 49ers that their coach believed in them. Even for professionals, that belief from the bench matters. This team was down and out this week, and somehow the 49ers rallied for a win against a good team.
San Francisco is clearly a better team at home in 2015. The only two home losses have come against the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, likely NFC playoff teams. Now, they get two weeks to try to figure out how to take this show on the road more effectively, but Tomsula may have just ensured he will be the coach still in 2016 with this win.
The Blaine Gabbert Era
There were reports on Sunday during the game that there is no way Colin Kaepernick will be back with the team in 2016. If that’s the case, there’s no point in playing him any more this season and potentially seeing his trade value decline via injury or something else. Kaep did get into the game for one play on Sunday when Gabbert was hurt briefly, but this is now Gabbert’s team for the rest of 2015.
Not only is Gabbert auditioning for 2016, but he’s going to have the chance to prove he can be a starter in this league again. He wasn’t great in this game; some might argue Gabbert wasn’t even good. Yet the 49ers responded to his leadership, and with the help of the defense, San Francisco won the game. That makes everyone look a lot better, from ownership on down to the groundskeepers.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.