The excitement of an unbeaten start has dissipated over the past three weeks as the Atlanta Falcons have lost games while struggling to take care of the ball.
They appear to have an opportune matchup to get back on track against a banged-up San Francisco 49ers team that is moving on from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The visiting Falcons hope to avoid losing more ground in the NFC South on Sunday when Blaine Gabbert tries to help the 49ers avert their worst nine-game start in seven years.
Atlanta had only committed two turnovers through the first four games of a 5-0 start that was its best since winning its first eight in 2012. The squad, however, has fallen 1 1/2 games behind Carolina in the division race after dropping two of three.
The Falcons gave the ball away four times – including Matt Ryan’s fumble and interception – leading to 20 Tampa Bay points in last Sunday’s surprising 23-20 overtime home defeat.
Ryan has thrown five interceptions and lost three of six fumbles over a four-game stretch in which Atlanta (6-2) has committed a league-high 12 turnovers.
"We have to clean things up because I don’t think it’s broken as much as we can get sharper at it,” coach Dan Quinn said. ”I can say that because of the first four games of where we were at with the turnover margin.”
Ryan completed 37 of 45 passes for a season-high 397 yards and two touchdowns last weekend. After leading two late winning drives against Washington and Tennessee, he drove Atlanta 40 yards in five plays to tie the game in the closing seconds of regulation.
The three-time Pro Bowler has thrown for 316.7 yards per game with five touchdowns and five interceptions in three meetings with San Francisco. He should be able to improve those numbers as the 49ers rank 27th against the pass with 280.0 yards allowed.
San Francisco (2-6), which hasn’t lost seven of its first nine since finishing 7-9 in 2008, is also tied for 26th with only eight forced turnovers.
Julio Jones has been Ryan’s top target, leading the NFL with 70 receptions and 892 yards. The star wideout finished with 12 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown last Sunday.
”I don’t think we’ve played our best football,” Ryan said. ”I think that’s in front of us. That’s going to be the challenge to everybody. That’s where everybody’s mindset needs to be.”
The 49ers are focused on getting Gabbert prepared to start after sending Kaepernick to the bench just three seasons after he helped guide them to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick ranks 27th with a 59.3 completion percentage with six touchdowns and five interceptions. He went 20 of 41 for 162 yards in last Sunday’s 27-6 loss at St. Louis.
Gabbert, a former first-round pick, played well in the preseason but is 5-22 as a starter, including 10 consecutive losses dating to his time with Jacksonville.
"I’ve watched Blaine get better each day and go about his business,” coach Jim Tomsula said. ”I’ve watched the balls he throws, how he practices, the seriousness and the way he prepares every week since he’s been here. He’s a veteran guy.”
Tomsula hinted other lineup changes were possible after his team scored seven points or less for the fourth time in six games. San Francisco looked to the future when it traded tight end Vernon Davis to Denver for two late-round draft picks this week.
Running backs Pierre Thomas and Shaun Draughn also were brought in because Carlos Hyde (foot), Reggie Bush (torn MCL) and Mike Davis (broken hand) are sidelined.
Gabbert could be forced to make some plays through the air as Atlanta ranks third against the run at 83.4 yards allowed per game but 24th against the pass at 262.0. The Falcons also could have a patchwork secondary following injuries to safety William Moore and cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
San Francisco is 23rd against the run (123.8) after allowing Rams rookie Todd Gurley to rush for 133 yards on 20 carries. That certainly doesn’t bode well heading into a matchup with Devonta Freeman, who ranks second with 111.0 yards per game and has an NFL-best eight touchdowns since moving into the starting lineup in Week 3.
The 49ers have taken the past two meetings, including a 28-24 road win despite Ryan’s 396 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC championship game following the 2012 season. Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two scores in that contest – his only meeting with San Francisco.