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The San Francisco 49ers kicked off their 2004 season at home in 3-COM Park and the results were what a lot of the procrastinators and critics had predicted to come true. The 49ers were defeated at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons 21-19 and new -found glory quarterback Michael Vick. However the game was not without some open optimism as the 49ers, although young and inexperienced, displayed signs of great potential throughout its ranks.
We made mistakes and we fell on our face literally on a lot of plays, such as poor tackling, ridiculous penalties and even worse costly turnovers. We turned the ball over near the goal line, missed tackles near our own end zone and had both our starting and back-up quarterbacks slain in the pocket like lambs in a lion's den.
However the San Francisco 49ers showed resiliency despite all of their errors. They came back with a purpose scratching and clawing where Tim Rattay threw a potential tying two-point conversion into the Falcons end zone only to witness it tipped by defensive tackle Rod Coleman with 44 seconds remaining.
The Atlanta Falcons, who were expected to fly into 3-COM Park and tear the very youthful and inexperienced 49ers apart, were greeted with a renewed determination and a team tired of all the gloom and doom talk over the airwaves.
The San Francisco defense stepped up and did a fine job in limiting extraordinaire Michael Vick to 227 total yards and just 10-yards rushing on Vick's part. They also managed to pressure Vick on almost every play making him think twice on multiple occasions and sacked the elusive quarterback four times.
"We stuck to our game plan. We knew we had guys that could run with him, we knew that we had to contain him, but our plan was to not let down and stay after him," Winborn said. "We did that, but it wasn't enough."
Almost like clockwork the defense sprung into action as this game got underway. It was encouraging to witness and my hopes blossomed as I witnessed it. Both Jamie Winborn and Julian Peterson were lit on fire and forced a fumble from quarterback Michael Vick that then led to a blocked punt deep in Falcons territory.
But then the offense came out on to the field and began the game with a scenario that just continued one right after another with running back Kevan Barlow fumbling the ball on the Falcon 13-yard line on his way to the end zone. One mistake led to another as the 49ers were waived for a total of 10 penalties and threw a costly interception on top of all that.
Both quarterbacks in Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey were injured, Rattay on a sack that wrenched his shoulder and Dorsey on a neck stinger. It illustrated just how important it is to protect these quarterbacks as; the offensive line struggled to create maximum protection schemes against a relentless blitzing attack from the Atlanta Falcons.
Falcon's head coach Jim Mora and former 49er defensive coordinator knew what it would take to keep the 49er offense off balanced, and he knew exactly what would rattle the nerves of a pocket passer like Tim Rattay. He brought the house time and time again, and the pressure was relentless and the 49er offensive line used to a Jeff Garcia scrambling away from trouble and making plays found themselves very vulnerable.
"We got a lot of pressure," Erickson said. "They put some heat on us. We didn't protect well at times. There were times they brought eight (pass rushers) and we didn't block it."
Blocking has got to be a key issue with our offensive line. That is the bottom line. We have to reverse the old ideology that we don't have a Steve Young or a Jeff Garcia behind us that can make plays on the run and get out of harms way. Every team in the NFL will study this tape against Atlanta and will apply the same principles against this offensive line.
Although the line only gave up three sacks, which isn't that bad for a line not used to providing maximum protection schemes for it's quarterbacks, the inexperience came through. Left tackle Kwame Harris struggled in his protection assignments and even though Kevan Barlow has improved at picking up the blitz and blocked better, he is no Garrison Hearst at it either.
The absence of Pro Bowl fullback Fred Beasley was another real factor in that he would've been an added blocker at identifying and picking up the blitz and providing regular protection.
"It's inconsistency. We've got to get better there, no question about it," Erickson said about his offensive-line woes. "We have to get better everywhere. There isn't one area that we don't need to get better in."
The scariest moment in the game was when Tim Rattay was injured in the second quarter. Falcon defensive tackle Rod Coleman slipped right past right guard Kyle Kosier and made a running charge at Rattay, slamming him into the turf with a thud. Rattay shaken and bewildered with a mild concussion was taken out for evaluation and would later return.
The most inspiring player in the game was 49er tight end Eric Johnson, who despite a hand injury earlier in the year, played with a fire that cannot be overlooked. He tied a career-high with eight receptions and set a new career-best with 89-receiving yards. Six of which came in the fourth quarter while the 49ers were trying to rally from behind and a 16-yard touchdown pass.
"I think this team showed it doesn't give up when we are behind," Johnson said. "We made a statement about what kind of character this team has. We're not going to back down; we're not going to give up."
One of the most feared realities came true in this game when starting running back Kevan Barlow turned the ball over on a fumble near the enemy goal line. It has been something that has been debated and feared by many a 49er fan knowing that Barlow has been susceptible to this very thing in the past.
So much is riding on him being the starting driving force of this 49er offense as its wide receivers who are young and inexperienced, come into game time experience. It is without question that the pressure upon Barlow to perform mistake-free is enormous and is expected as a veteran.
"I don't want anybody to get discouraged by that, because I know what kind of player I am," said Barlow, who signed a five-year, $20 million contract during the off-season. "I'm an excellent player, a great player. I didn't get into my swing like I wanted to. But we've got 15 more games to go."
To fumble on your first carry as the starting running back is reason to worry. It will take these hard words from Barlow to help turn these doubts around. I must say I was disturbed despite the ferocious hit he took that jarred the football from him. This game was just one turnover away from winning it, and these are the only chances in most games that you'll get.
NFL Kickoff Game #1 The Atlanta Falcons at the San Francisco 49ers (Loss 21-19)
In this game, let it be known that we witnessed the debut of back-up quarterback Ken Dorsey who came in after Tim Rattay was removed after a bone-crunching sack for evaluation. He came in and despite the pressures brought a stagnant 49er offense to life as he directed the 49er offense down the field.
"I felt I helped the team," said Dorsey, who was 9-of-15 for 111-yards. "At the same time, it was a learning experience. This was no preseason, that's for sure. Things happen a lot faster, they disguise defenses a lot better, and you've got to get a feel for that as you go."
First Quarter Highlights: On first Atlanta Falcons offensive drive under Michael Vick, at their 32-yard line he is sacked by 49er linebacker Julian Peterson in which he fumbles the ball but is recovered by Atlanta at their 11-yard line, costing them a loss of 21 total yards. The Atlanta Falcons punt but 49er safety Keith Lewis deflects the punt and it goes only nine -yards putting the 49ers on the Falcon 20-yard line.
From here, 49er running back Kevan Barlow runs up the middle for four-yards before taking a hard hit from former 49er cornerback Jason Webster that jars the ball from Barlow and is recovered by the Falcons at their 13-yard line. Both teams have in and out offensive drives but on Atlanta's third offensive series they produce.
With 8:21 in the first quarter the Falcons with quarterback Michael Vick and running back Warrick Dunn reach the 49er 15-yard line where Vick connects with tight end Algae Crumpler for the touchdown to make it 7-0 Falcons.
Second Quarter Highlights: On San Francisco's first offensive drive under Tim Rattay from our own 2-yard line, thanks to an illegal block above the waist to 49er fullback Matt Stanley, the 49ers reach their 30-yard line.
From here, 49er tight end Eric Johnson is called for offensive holding and on the next play Tim Rattay is sacked, for a loss of seven more yards. Penalties fly again as Kwame Harris is called for offensive holding and even on the punt Jeff Ulbrich gets penalized for ineligible downfield kick.
Michael Vick takes over at 49er 49-yard line but is sacked by Julian Peterson, fumbles the ball but it is again recovered. Despite this Vick drives the Falcons to the 49er 2-yard line where Warrick Dunn runs it in for a touchdown to make it 14-0 Falcons.
49er quarterback Ken Dorsey enters the game to allow Rattay time to be evaluated and from our 12-yard line drives the team to the Falcon five-yard line where Todd Peterson makes a field goal to make it 14-3 Falcons. The Atlanta Falcons drive is stalled once again thanks to a Jamie Winborn sack of Michael Vick at their own 45-yard line, and they go into halftime 14-3 Falcons.
Third Quarter Highlights: The 49ers start be killing the first drive with penalties, but the Falcons turn the ball over on their own 34-yard line by Vick throwing an interception that linebacker Jeff Ulbrich catches and proceeds to the Falcon 15-yard line.
With a great opportunity Ken Dorsey is unable to connect with anyone and Todd Peterson makes another field goal to make it 14-6 Falcons. Both teams face off the rest of the quarter with tough defense and stalled offensive drives, as the fourth quarter approaches.
Fourth Quarter Highlights: The 49ers begin the first drive at their 43-yard line under Tim Rattay with short passes and running by Kevan Barlow they reach the Falcon three-yard line. Rattay throws to veteran 49er Curtis Conway who is intercepted and is taken over at the San Francisco 14-yard line.
The Atlanta Falcons make it look easy with the help of a penalty for defensive holding on Jamie Winborn, with Warrick Dunn running it in from nine-yards out for the touchdown to make it 21-6 Falcons.
San Francisco gets the ball back at its 26-yard line where Tim Rattay is determined to redeem himself by driving all the way down to the eight-yard line and he connects with wide receiver Cedrick Wilson for a touchdown to make it 21-13 Falcons.
The 49ers again manage to get the ball back with 4:33 left to play and Tim Rattay again drives the team down the field with tight end Eric Johnson doing most of the work and connecting with a 16-yard touchdown. From here a two-point conversion is called in and Rattay tries to connect with Brandon Lloyd but the pass is deflected and the score remains 21-19 Falcons.
"The biggest thing for me is the positive aspect of it is how we fought back," said head coach Dennis Erickson. "It was a situation where it would have been easy to let her go. We made too many mistakes, but I'm proud of the way we played. It's something to build on."
Statistics: The 49ers had 21 first downs compared to 14 for Atlanta and had better third down efficiency. In total yards the 49ers moved the ball 359-yards compared to 227 for the Falcons, and we held the running game, even with Michael Vick, to 54 total yards. Atlanta out-performed us on return yardage scoring 104-yards to our 23, and they had fewer penalties...7 to our 10.
In the red zone was where we were dominated as they always converted and we only did half of the time. We had time of possession with 33:27 to 26:33, but turnovers and penalties proved too costly to make a difference.
The greatest testament was how the defense was able to contain Michael Vick all day long. A statement that even made Atlanta Falcon head coach Jim Mora proud because he was responsible for so many of these players development before accepting his position with the Falcons.
"They have some great players," Vick said afterward. 'I have a lot of respect for them. We had to alter a lot of our game plan." "They ran (Vick) down a couple of times," Jim Mora said. "I talked to Jamie (Winborn) last week, and he said, "I can run like Vick now. I bit my tongue a little bit, and I'm glad I did because Jamie's got some wheels."
However you look at this game you have to respect the way we came back and the way the defense kept the Falcons in place. Sure we all know about the mental mistakes and the sloppy tackling and turnovers galore, but this is a young and inexperienced team for the bulk of its personnel.
We will become better each and every week; I'm optimistic of that. We can surprise teams and we will. It is time to look at this season as just a rehearsal for better times to come, because this team has merit and inner strength we have yet to see this season. Please keep the faith my 49er faithful, because all is still not lost. We will take more lumps and losses but it is how we play the game and what we learn from it that will project our new path.
Also for information purposes I will be absent next week with a work-related trip in Chicago. My coverage of the New Orleans game will be very limited and for that I apologize, but I will be back for good after this to analyze games and provide facts and honest commentary the best way I can.