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Falcons put blinders on, tune out 49ers’ choas

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The Sports Xchange

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons, who are coming off a loss to Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are vowing to ignore the chaos that has embroiled the San Francisco 49ers.

The Falcons have their own issues with penalties, red zone scoring and turnovers. While the 49ers are in absolute midseason disarray, the Falcons are not focused on their opponent’s woes.

After trading Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to Denver, the 49ers are set to bench quarterback Colin Kaepernick in favor of Blaine Gabbert for Sunday’s 4 p.m. ET game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Kaepernick, who guided the 49ers to a victory over the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game after the 2012 regular season, has struggled mightily this season.

With Kaepernick at the controls and throwing errant passes by the bushel, the 49ers have dropped six of the past seven games, including a 27-6 defeat to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.

On the season, Kaepernick has completed 144 of 243 passes (59.3 percent) for six touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a passer rating of 78.8.

Gabbert, a former first-round pick by Jacksonville in 2011, has a 5-22 record as an NFL starter. He was drafted 10th overall and was considered a draft bust.

Gabbert will be the third backup quarterback the Falcons have faced this season, and one of the quarterbacks they have beaten, Ryan Mallett, is out of the league.

The Falcons beat the Dallas Cowboys with Brandon Weeden filling in for Tony Roma and the Tennessee Titans with Zach Mettenberger replacing the injured Marcus Mariota.

Gabbert, who played at Missouri, has a strong arm. But he left Jacksonville with a reputation for getting flustered in the pocket.

The Falcons, who have struggled to mount a pass rush this season, will need to try to rattle Gabbert.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn was previously at Seattle and knows the 49ers from playing them twice a year.

“We have a pretty good understanding of the guys who were there from the offensive side, from my experience,” Quinn said. “Then (offensive line coach) Chris (Morgan) from the (defensive) side of the guys that were there. Past that, it goes back into this week’s game. We want to have a championship game mind set every week.”

While the chaos reigns for the 49ers offense, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan remains impressed with their defense.

“The defense is solid,” Ryan said on his weekly radio show on 680 The Fan. “They have been a strong defensive football team, really since I’ve been in the league.”

The 49ers, who lost a ton of players over the offseason including Chris Borland, Patrick Williams and Aldon Smith, are led by linebackers Navorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks.

“They still have a lot of great players,” Ryan said. “Novarro Bowman looks like he’s back playing at a super high level. Ahmad Brooks is another player who’s been a great player for them for a long time. They’ve got Glenn Dorsey and (Tank) Carradine, who is playing well. So, I think this is a solid defense that is physical.”

The Falcons committed 14 penalties and lost 124 yards last week against Tampa. A total of 11 of the penalties were accepted, which was a season-high. They were minus-4 in the turnover battle and had red zone drives stall at the 3-, 4- and 5-yard lines.

“For us, it’s clean things up because I don’t think it’s something that’s broken as much as it things that we can get sharper at,” Quinn said. “The reason why I’m able to say that is because over the first four games, where we were at in terms of the turnover margin. For me, it’s a clean up and not a fix.”

SERIES RECORD: This will be the 76th meeting between the Falcons and the 49ers in an old NFC West rematch. The 49ers hold a 45-29-1 edge over the Falcons. The two teams have met twice in the playoffs, with the 49ers winning in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, 28-24.

GAME PLAN: After a red-hot start to the season, the Falcons’ offense has sputtered through a rash of penalties and turnovers and a lack of production inside the red zone. Atlanta is now minus-two in turnover margin, including six red-zone turnovers over the past four games, and is coming off 11 penalties accepted last week. Those types of miscues are the quickest way to keep the reeling 49ers in the game.

San Francisco turns to QB Blaine Gabbert, the former first-round pick who makes his first start for the 49ers and his first overall since 2013. He has spoken confidently of his growth as a player since three awful years in Jacksonville, but the fact remains he has thrown only seven regular-season passes since the ’13 season, has a subpar offensive line and perhaps a new roster addition starting in the backfield. RB Carlos Hyde (foot) did not practice midweek while Reggie Bush (knee) and Mike Davis (hand) underwent surgery – potentially leaving newly-signed Pierre Thomas and/or Shaun Draughn to log significant playing time.

The good news for Gabbert is the Falcons have struggled to apply consistent pressure and he may have success peppering the underbelly of the defense with quick passes and let his receivers make plays after the catch.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

–Falcons LB Paul Worrilow, who leads the team in team in tackles, vs. 49ers RB Pierre Thomas, who was signed this week.

Worrilow has recovered nicely from quad injury and is back adding teeth to the run defense. Worrilow has 53 tackles, 37 solo and 16 assisted. Thomas played for the Saints and had some good days against the Falcons. If Carlos Hyde is unable to play, Thomas should get the bulk of the carries. Thomas, 30, has rushed for 3,745 yards and 28 touchdowns, and has 327 catches for 2,608 yards and 12 scores. His yards-per-carry average (4.6) ranks sixth among active running backs.

–Falcons pass rush, which has been anemic, vs. 49ers QB Blaine Gabbert, who has been shaky in the pocket in the past. The Falcons have just 10 sacks on the season and have resorted to blitzing more to create some pressure. Vic Beasley, O’Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn lead the Falcons with two sacks each. Sacks and hits have rattled Gabbert in the past. NFL Media’s Willie McGinest said, “The first time he gets hit, it’s going to be an issue. He does not stand in the pocket strong. He is not as strong … he doesn’t have the courage or the guts to me to play the quarterback position.”

–Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, who leads the NFL with 1,062 yards from scrimmage, vs. 49ers LB Navorro Bowman, who’s second in the league with 82 tackles according to NFL.com stats. Freeman has 709 yards rushing and has caught 40 passes for 353 yards. Bowman, who’s coming back from a gruesome left knee injury, is close to his old form, according to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.


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