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Atlanta Falcons

  Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire

  Defense getting mileage from rookies

The key to the Atlanta Falcons season is how fast some of their young defenders develop.

Some are stepping forward but one has fallen into the league's concussion protocol.

Overall, there was no sign of the figurative "wall" for Atlanta's rookies against the San Francisco 49ers. They'll face a new and different test when the Falcons visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Two of them, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, led the defensive effort in the Falcons' 41-13 victory over the 49ers. Weakside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who was drifting down the stretch, left Sunday's game and is in the NFL's concussion protocol.

Jones forced a fumble in the first quarter and Neal recovered it, leading to the second Atlanta touchdown. Neal led the team with 10 tackles and added two passes defended while Jones made eight tackles.

The Falcons selected Neal in the first round (No. 17 overall) of this year's draft, took Jones in the second round and picked linebacker De'Vondre Campbell in the fourth. Campbell and Jones were starters from Week 1 and Neal joined the lineup once he recovered from knee surgery that sidelined him for the first two games.

Atlanta hoped to improve its team speed and physical play and the rookies have shown signs of coming on after some growing pains. Jones especially is peaking: He's earned his highest grades from Pro Football Focus over the past five weeks and had another standout effort against the 49ers.

"It's a matter of learning my keys better and locking in and taking all the keys to the field," Jones said. "It allows me to play faster and know what is going on."

Jones ended San Francisco's second drive when he jarred the ball loose from running back Carlos Hyde at the 49ers' 49-yard line. The ball bounced into the open field and Neal recovered it at the 50.

"Really just trying to make a profile tackle that we always talk about in the strike zone because that's where the ball is at," Jones said. "I put my head on it and it ended up coming out."

That play helped set the tone for a dominant defensive effort by the Falcons.

In addition to getting the turnover, the Falcons forced the 49ers to go three-and-out on four of their 10 possessions series (not including a meaningless series to end of the game).

"Getting that ball back into the offense's hands, you know they are going to score," Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. "That's our challenge to ourselves. How many times can we get the ball back into our offense's hands? We went out there and kept getting three-and-outs.

"Even when they got a first down, we made sure we stopped them. They got a touchdown or two but we kept playing the whole game and we got the ball back to our offense and you see what they did."

The Falcons are getting an unexpected boost from defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who had a sack. The former second-round pick has been inactive for four games this season and has gotten the message.

"We were very excited about that," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "It was good to see him battle. I think his play over the last few weeks has really improved.

"It's been difficult for him at times whether he was inactive or playing, he's the one that made the real I'm putting a line in the sand to see how good I can get and how good I can play. I'm pleased for him."


Notes, Quotes

  All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones has missed two games with a sprain toe. The Falcons are hoping to get Jones back for the Carolina game.

"I'm hopeful that he's back," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "I think that he will. We are going to take it all the way through practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and then we'll have a good shot, but I am hopeful for that. I can't say it's for sure until he can explode like he can but I think he's a heck of a lot closer than he has been the over last two weeks."

The win over the 49ers left the Falcons at 9-5, ensuring their first winning record since 2012. Former coach Mike Smith followed a 13-3 season and a loss in the NFC title game with 4-12 and 6-10 seasons and was fired. Dan Quinn went 8-8 in his first year after a second-half collapse. With games remaining at Carolina (5-8) and home against New Orleans (6-8), the Falcons have a chance to finish 11-5.

Tampa Bay's loss to Dallas on Sunday night dropped the Buccaneers to 8-6, moving the Falcons closer to clinching the NFC South. They have a one-game lead and own common-opponents and conference-record tiebreakers over Tampa Bay. The teams are tied in division record. The Bucs finish with games at New Orleans and at home against Carolina.

Finishing as a No. 3 or 4 seed in the NFC would give the Falcons a home playoff game, and they're currently third (by virtue of common opponents tiebreaker against Detroit).

Atlanta is only one-half game behind Seattle (9-4-1) for the No. 2 seed behind Dallas (12-2). The second seed would give the Falcons a first-round bye. The Falcons play two beatable divisional opponents, as does Seattle, which is home against Arizona (5-8-1) this week and visits San Francisco (1-13) in the finale.

Matt Ryan's 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who was injured late in the game and carted off, and Matt Bryant's extra point made it 21-0. Those points gave the Falcons 449 this season, setting a franchise record. The previous mark of 442 was set by the 1998 team, the only team in franchise history to advance to the Super Bowl.

Ryan tied his career high in touchdown passes with 32 on the pass to Hooper. He also had 32 scoring passes in 2012.

The Falcons did not need any more bad injury news, but rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell left the game with a concussion and did not return. With less than three minutes to play, tight end Austin Hooper left the game with a knee injury.

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel had a shoulder injury, but he later returned.

The Falcons played the 49ers without wide receiver Julio Jones (sprained toe), defensive end Adrian Clayborn (knee), cornerback Jalen Collins (knee), wide receiver Nick Williams (concussion) and safety Robenson Therezie (ankle).


Strategy & Personnel


QB Matt Ryan completed 17 of 23 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and finished with a 144.5 passer rating against the 49ers.

WR Julio Jones is set to have a "full speed" test on Wednesday. The Falcons are hopeful that he can return of the Carolina game.

CB Jalen Collins (knee) is set to have a full speed test on Wednesday. The Falcons are hopeful that he can return after missing the past two games.

TE Austin Hooper (knee) does not have a "long-term" injury. But no timetable was given for his return to action. He left the game against the 49ers on a cart.

DE Ra'Shede Hageman had his sack of the season against the 49ers.

SS Keanu Neal led the Falcons in tackles with 10 and he recovered a fumble.


PASSING OFFENSE: A-plus Matt Ryan completed 17 of 23 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and finished with a 144.5 passer rating. He tied his career and franchise record for most touchdown passes in a single season (32). Also, Ryan's 144.5 passer rating is the second highest passer rating in his career. The Falcons had their sixth-best yardage total in franchise history 550 yards. Wide receiver Aldrick Robinson recorded his first 100-yard receiving game of his career. He finished the game with four receptions for 111 yards. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel recorded his sixth receiving touchdown of the season seventh total. He has now scored a touchdown in five of the last six games. Gabriel finished the game with three receptions for 60 yards. Tight end Levine Toilolo had one catch for 30 yards and Austin Hooper had a touchdown grab of 9 yards. He left the game in the fourth quarter with a serious injury. The Falcons, who have already lost Jacob Tamme for the season, have D.J. Tialavea on the practice squad. The line also kept Ryan clean. He was sacked once and hit three times.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus The team amassed a season-high 248 yards rushing, which is the highest total Atlanta has recorded since week 17 of 2011 (251 yards). Devonta Freeman had his third three-rushing touchdown game of his career. He finished the game with 20 carries for 139 yards on 7.0 yards per carry. He broke seven tackles along the way. Freeman became the ninth Falcon with two seasons of 10 or more touchdowns. Freeman and Tevin Coleman finished with 221 total yards. This is the third time this season the two have combined for 200-plus yards. The two have combined for 2,023 total yards and 21 touchdowns this season. Freeman's fumble on the 1-yard line lowered the grade. Can't have those dreaded red-zone turnovers. The offensive line got physical with the 49ers and was determined to run the football. "We want to run the ball, we want to move it, we want to get linebackers going," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. "It makes it easier on us in the passing game."

PASS DEFENSE: A-minus Strong safety Keanu Neal made his presence felts with 10 tackles, including a nice open-field form tackle. C.J. Goodwin, the converted wide receiver, started at left cornerback and held his own over 39 snaps. The Falcons held 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 183 yards passing while sacking him two times moving their sack streak to 13 games. Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. had a sack to boost his league-leading total to 14.5. He is two sacks away from tying John Abraham for the single-season franchise record.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus Middle linebacker Deion Jones forced his first fumble of his career, which was recovered by fellow rookie safety Keanu Neal. Atlanta's 16 forced fumbles on the season are the most the defense has recorded since 2009 (17). Weakside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell left the game with a concussion and did not return. Paul Worrilow took over for Campbell and played 36 of 55 defensive snaps (65 percent). He finished with three tackles and two passes defensed and was highest-graded (84) player on the defense by Pro Football Focus. Carlos Hyde rushed for 71 yards on 13 carries, but most of the yards came after the game was out of hand.

A-minus Returner Eric Weems set the offense up with a 42-yard punt return to San Francisco's 47-yard line to start the game. "Everything goes to the guys up front," Weems said. "They did well setting up and getting their blocks. I just found the creased that they gave me." Matt Bryant nailed a 50-yard field goal and punter Matt Bosher averaged 33.5 yards on two flopper punts that pinned the 49ers inside the 20-yard. The only blemish was a holding penalty on Justin Hardy that brought back a 39-yard return by Weems.

A-plus The coaching staff had the Falcons ready to play. The offense continued to flourish and Kyle Shanahan's head coaching prospects continued to improve. The team also broke the franchise record for most points scored in a season on Hooper's 9-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. The team now has 469 points on the season. The team also matched their total for most points scored in a quarter this season (21). The Falcons also averaged 8.3 yards per play.

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