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Falcons, 49ers heading in opposite directions

- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

ATLANTA (AP) - Quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons' offense is clicking, putting up points and getting the job done.

The San Francisco 49ers' offense is sputtering and in disarray.

So it's no surprise that the teams are headed in opposite directions going into Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.

Coming off an overtime win at New Orleans, Atlanta (2-1) is playing confidently under third-year coach Mike Smith. The struggles of the winless 49ers (0-3) led to coach Mike Singletary firing offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye this week.

Former Falcons quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson is now in charge.

"I think I'm thankful that we're having this situation at the beginning of the season," Singletary said. "It will give us a chance to really look at it for what it is and make the changes that we need to make going forward and capitalize on it."

One reason for Atlanta's success is an open line of communication among Ryan, other star players and coordinator Mike Mularkey.

Since losing their season opener at Pittsburgh, the Falcons have had few problems controlling the clock and scoring points. Ryan looks and feels more comfortable in his third season as Mularkey and Smith offer more ownership of the playbook.

"The most successful coaches are the ones that put their players in the best possible situations to succeed, and I think you have to do that with input from your players," Smith said. "I think that's something that we've had since we got here."

In last week's 73-minute win over the Super Bowl champion Saints, Mularkey pounded New Orleans' defensive front with 50 runs. The Falcons converted 11 of a combined 21 third and fourth downs to hold the ball 63 percent of the game.

With running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez and receiver Roddy White, Ryan has three respected playmakers, and the third-year quarterback is getting significant contributions from his reserves, too, in the passing attack.

"When they feel like they need to put extra help on Roddy or Tony, it creates some lanes for Harry (Douglas), and Brian Finneran and Eric Weems have done a good job for us," Ryan said. "Out of the backfield, Jason Snelling is getting some opportunities where he comes out uncovered, and the same goes for Michael Turner."

That's hardly the case with San Francisco. This season, sixth-year quarterback Alex Smith owns a 66.2 quarterback rating, 28 points under Ryan's, and has 2-to-5 ration in touchdowns to interceptions. Ryan's is 5-to-1.

Alex Smith just hopes that work on the perimeter and underneath improves with tight end Vernon Davis and receivers Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr.

Maybe the promotion of Johnson, his former position coach the last two years, will help. The Niners have been outscored 62-16 in two road games.

"Well, I think it's just being decisive," Alex Smith said. "I think that's when good things happen. When you're unsure back there and you're not sure if you should pull the trigger or not, you try to make a play with your feet ... and that's when bad things happen."

Alex Smith indicated his differences with Raye stemmed from the former coordinator's unwillingness to change the game plan if certain plays weren't working. Now that Johnson will call plays, Smith believes the offense will improve.

"Week-in, week-out and over the course of a game, you have to be flexible," he said. "You have to know what the defense is doing and combat that. (He and Johnson) speak pretty freely. We're very comfortable speaking our minds with whatever comes."

To keep the score close, the 49ers need their defense to limit time of possession against the NFL's best in that category.

They have hope with middle linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive tackle Justin Smith and cornerback Nate Clements, who combined in last year's 45-10 home loss to Atlanta for 17 solo stops, two forced fumbles, two tackles for lost yardage and one quarterback hit.

"I don't put any merit into what (San Franciso's) record is," Mike Smith said. "When you watch them on tape, they are impressive."

Against the 49ers last year, the Falcons' defense countered with a heavy rush from John Abraham and Kroy Biermann as the two defensive ends combined for two sacks and one fumble recovery.

But the Atlanta offense was equally dominant in playing its best road game of 2009.

White set career and franchise highs in yards receiving with 210 and scored two touchdowns on eight receptions. Turner scored three TDs and averaged 4.4 yards on 22 carries. Ryan passed for a career-best 329 yards.

Over their last two games, the Falcons have looked just as lethal.

"Matt's killing it right now, man," White said. "Making great decisions, great throws, putting the ball at the right spot in tight coverage. We're having some fun."

Singletary hopes the 49ers find a similar groove. They can't afford many more bad days.

"I just want the offense on the same page," Singletary said. "I just want all the players that we have, the playmakers and everybody, to be involved. I think in one way or another, whether you're blocking, whether you're catching the ball or whatever you're doing, everybody needs to play a role. That's the most important thing for us."

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