Analysis: Falcons got the ball to Julio Jones - and upset 49ers

Back in the 1990s, when the Chicago Bulls were in trouble they got the ball to Michael Jordan.

On Sunday, with things looking bleak for the Falcons, they got the ball to their Jordan, wide receiver Julio Jones.

In the dramatic 29-22 upset, Jones delivered time and time again, finally twisting his body across the end zone after a low hit from safety Jimmie Ward to push the Falcons ahead.

» MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM: This win just makes you wonder

“That’s what great players do,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “They find a way to get the job done.”

On the ensuing kickoff, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus scooped up a wayward lateral and went in to the end zone for the game’s final points.

Here are the five things we learned as the Falcons improved to 4-2 since the bye and 5-9 on the season:

1. The touchdown catch. Ryan walked reporters through the touchdown pass to Jones.

“It was a play call where we read it across the board,” Ryan said. “We started with (wide receiver) Russell Gage on the left-hand side. They covered it well, but we knew we had Julio Jones coming back to us. It was just a physical, strong catch by him. He did a great job of body awareness to know where he was at and making sure the ball was across the plane.”

Ryan is no stranger to thrilling comebacks. Earlier in his career, he directed a comeback over the Bears in the final 11 seconds. This was his 29th fourth-quarter comeback and his 38th game-winning drive.

After the 49ers took a 19-10 lead with 10:12 left in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak.

Ryan threw five passes to Jones, including from 32 yards out which drew an interference call on Ward in the end zone. Rookie Qadree Ollison rushed to score from one yard out to make it 19-17.

The defense then held the 49ers to a field goal to make it 22-17 with 1:48 to play.

In the final drive, Ryan went to Jones three times and picked up 25, 10 and finally the 5-yard touchdown.

“You know, when your number is called, you make plays,” Jones said. “We didn’t really have to say too much.”

2. Hooper's touchdown catch. Falcons tight end Austin Hooper had his touchdown catch on the previous play overturned.

It appeared that he palmed the ball.

“Yeah, I saw it,” Hooper said of the replay. “I mean, you know, obviously I’m biased. I want to score the game winner at home (with his parents at the game), but in the end Julio Jones scored it for us. …It really would have haunted me if we didn’t (win). The fact that we won makes all well that ends well.”

Falcons tight end Austin Hooper discusses the team's win and the end-zone grab that was ruled incomplete. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

3. Defense played strong. Since the bye week, the defense is allowing just 19.1 points per game after allowing 31.2 points over the first eight games (1-7) of the season.

Linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones led the way with 11 and nine tackles, respectively. Also, cornerback Isaiah Oliver finished with nine tackles.

Campbell and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett also had forced fumbles.

“We wanted to come out and put our best foot forward,” Jarrett said. “I think we did that. Everyone put on a good performance.”

The Falcons don’t want to look back to the beginning of the season when they were hemorrhaging yards and points.

“We want to continue to build off it until the end of the season as best we can,” Jarrett said.

The Falcons’ pass rush managed one sack by Vic Beasley and three quarterback hits, but the coverage forced San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to hold the ball at times. He rushed two times for six yards.

“It was important for us to come in and get to the quarterback,” Jarrett said. “Even when we didn’t get the sack, we still got a lot of hits and got him off the spot.”

In the pre-game hype, much was made of the 49ers three-person fleet of running backs. The Falcons did a respectable job holding the running backs to 105 rushing and one touchdown on 22 carries. Take out Tevin Coleman’s 37-yard run, and it’s a great day.

Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley (98) is assisted from the field after sustaining a shoulder injury in the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

Credit: Lachlan Cunningham

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Credit: Lachlan Cunningham

4. The Kittle plan. The Falcons were not able to slow down San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who had 13 catches for 134 yards.

The Falcons used a variety players on Kittle and kept him out of the end zone.

He had a couple of power moves, but nothing like the rampage he had in the previous game against the Saints.

“He caught me one time trying to fight against him and slammed the mess out of me,” strong safety Ricardo Allen said. “I kept fighting, but he’s pretty strong. He’s a great competitor. He’s the kind of player you want to go against again and again.”

Free safety Damontae Kazee went after Kittle high early in the game, but in the second half he started coming in low to make his tackles.

Allen finished with two tackles and Kazee had seven.

5. Where was this in September? The Falcons have won three straight on the road and have impressive victories over the Saints and 49ers, who are both playoff-bound.

Where was all of this when they were going 1-7 over the first half of the season?

“I don’t want to go back to look or look too far head,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I just want to stay in the moment with this group of guys. ... We’ve just got to stay right where we are.”

Ryan was also not in a reflective mood.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed not to be in the playoff picture,” Ryan said. “But you can only control what’s in front of you. The second half of the season we’ve done a better job of that. We have two weeks to finish it out the right way.”

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn assess the team's winning performance against the 49ers. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)