The Atlanta Falcons ended the 2015 season with the NFL’s most-prolific wide receiver, Julio Jones, then got busy augmenting their already potent passing attack.
They signed wide receiver Mohamed Sanu to a five-year deal in free agency, drafted Stanford tight end Austin Hooper in the third round and then picked up speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel off of waivers before the regular season began.
The result: Quarterback Matt Ryan is on pace for the biggest passing season of his nine-year career and the Falcons have the No. 3 offense in the league.
Coach Dan Quinn said the objective heading into the 2016 season was to spread the field and rely on the experienced and savvy Ryan to figure out the best spot to deliver the ball.
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“It allows him to keep attacking,” Quinn said on a conference call.
That offseason approach is in sharp contrast to the 49ers. Despite hiring an offensive-minded coach with a reputation for explosive offenses, they went to the Canadian Football League for their only free-agent receiver, Eric Rogers, then waited until the end of the sixth round to draft a receiver, Aaron Burbridge.
Keep attacking? That’s identical to coach Chip Kelly’s philosophy when he ran offenses at New Hampshire, Oregon and the Philadelphia Eagles. As the 49ers’ coach, however, he twice has acknowledged having to take his foot off the gas pedal because of his lack of firepower in the passing game – after a Week 11 loss to the Patriots and following Sunday’s loss to the Jets.
The 49ers played New England without receiver Torrey Smith and lost both Smith and tight end Vance McDonald to injuries Sunday against New York.
“I just really wasn’t confident,” Kelly said after the overtime loss to the Jets. “You lost Vance. You lost Torrey. You’ve got two new guys in there on the offensive line. I was making sure we were good with protection.”
McDonald broke his left scapula (shoulder) against the Jets and is finished for the season. Smith was knocked unconscious in the third quarter, is in the league’s post-concussion program and didn’t sound as if he was going to play against Atlanta on Sunday.
“I still have symptoms,” the receiver said on his weekly KNBR radio segment Wednesday. “I don’t know how long that will be. Whether it’s going to be a week, or two weeks, or whatever, you just never know. It’s my first time ever having one like this. Obviously, I was knocked out, so it was pretty bad. I don’t know, but things are better, which is a positive sign.”
The Falcons could be without their top receiver, Jones, who missed Sunday’s game in Los Angeles with a sprained toe and who didn’t practice Wednesday. Sanu also sat out the Rams game, although he practiced Wednesday and is expected to play against the 49ers.
Their absence didn’t seem to slow the Falcons’ passing attack against the Rams. Ryan threw for 237 yards, three touchdowns and had a 126.6 passer rating. Gabriel led Atlanta with three catches for 82 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Ryan targeted eight other pass catchers in the game.
“That’s the nature of the NFL – sometimes you have guys go down and you have to have other guys step up,” Ryan said on a conference call. “I thought our guys didn’t blink. They went out there and they competed really well and made plays when their numbers were called.”