SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When Kyle Shanahan looks back on the two years he spent as offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, it’s the positives he remembers much more than the disappointing ending.
After a couple of tough stops in Washington and Cleveland, Shanahan’s coaching career took off after joining the Falcons when he helped Matt Ryan and Atlanta reach record heights on the way to a Super Bowl appearance. That performance helped land him a head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers even if he fell short of a Super Bowl title when the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead before losing in overtime to New England.
“Not at all,” Shanahan said when asked if the Super Bowl collapse lessened his memories of his tenure with the Falcons.
“I loved my time in Atlanta, loved the people I was there with. I went there at a tough time in my career and just the two previous places I had been. … It was good to be in a good place like that, and really enjoyed the players, too.”
Shanahan gets a chance to face his old team, including Ryan and head coach Dan Quinn, when the 49ers (11-2) host the Falcons (4-9) on Sunday.
Atlanta set a franchise record by scoring 540 points in 2016 with Shanahan calling plays. Ryan had career bests in yards passing (4,944), TD passes (38) and passer rating (117.1) on the way to winning the league MVP.
“Kyle had a huge impact on my career,” Ryan said. “He challenged me to get better, improve in certain areas and taught me a lot about offensive football. Just seeing things from a different perspective, I feel like I made big jumps in the two years we were together and I’m happy for him that he’s having great success. … It’s no surprise that he has their offense playing well because he’s excellent at knowing what to do.”
While Shanahan is thriving in his third year in San Francisco with the Niners alone atop the NFC standings and in line for home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Falcons have struggled.
Atlanta started the year 1-7 and has little left to play for other than pride heading into a matchup with a coach the Falcons know well and respect greatly.
“Kyle makes it extremely difficult. He’s a fantastic play caller,” Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “When the season has not gone as well as you’d like it, you covet these opportunities to show people what you could’ve been, what you should’ve been.”
The ties between the two franchises run deeper than Shanahan’s relationships in Atlanta. Ryan and 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey are first cousins. McGlinchey’s mother, Janet, and Ryan’s mom, Bernice, who are sisters, are leading a contingent of about 50-60 people coming out from Pennsylvania for the game. For McGlinchey, it’s an opportunity to play against someone he looked up to growing up.
“When I was a kid, all I ever did was try to be like Matt in every way I could,” he said. “I would watch his interviews. I would watch everything about Matt. Maybe I just adopted the way he did things because he always did them the right way. It’s pretty easy to learn from a guy like him, how well he has done.”
The 49ers rank third in the NFL with 45 sacks. The Falcons will have to keep Ryan upright to have any chance of pulling off a major upset.
Atlanta, with two rookies starting on the offensive line, has surrendered 41 sacks. But, after giving up a total of 15 in the two previous games, the unit showed major improvement last week against a Carolina team that ranked second in the league. Ryan was sacked only one time by the Panthers, while the Falcons had five sacks.
RUN RAHEEM, RUN
Raheem Mostert spent most of his first four season in the NFL as a special-teams standout. The past two weeks, he’s shown the ability to be a featured back. Mostert has gotten the bulk of the work for San Francisco the past two games and delivered. He ran for 69 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and also caught two passes for 40 yards and a TD in last week’s win at New Orleans. Mostert has 263 yards from scrimmage and three TDs the past two weeks and figures to keep getting a heavy load as he has averaged 6.0 yards per carry for the season.
“What Raheem has done these last few weeks and has continued to do, we need to give him more opportunities,” Shanahan said. “He’s given us no choice. I’m happy for him and it’s been great. He’s been extremely impressive.”
Kicker Younghoe Koo has become a big weapon for the Falcons since replacing Matt Bryant.
Koo was selected as NFC special teams player of the week for the second time after making four field goals, four extra points and recovering a fumble on a kickoff in last Sunday’s 40-20 victory over Carolina. The 25-year-old Korean has connected on 16 of 18 field goals and 9 of 10 extra points.
“He’s gaining confidence as he’s going,” Quinn said. “We’re pleased where he’s at.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
The 49ers suffered a major loss last week when starting center Weston Richburg went down with a season-ending knee injury. Richburg anchored a line that excelled in both run blocking and protection, and will be replaced by untested Ben Garland. Garland has spent most of his career since entering the NFL as a reserve and his only seven starts came at guard for Atlanta in 2017 and ’18.
The Falcons will be looking at some new receivers over the final three games after losing Calvin Ridley to a season-ending abdominal injury.
Ridley, a first-round draft pick in 2018, had become a major weapon alongside Julio Jones — especially after the trade of Mohamed Sanu to the New England Patriots.
“We have a number of playmakers,” Quinn said.