ATLANTA -- There was never much doubt prior to the season that for the San Francisco 49ers to have early success, they'd need to lean heavily on a defense they believe is among the league's best.
The hope, which multiple Niners players and coaches expressed, was that if and when the defense had some hiccups or was depleted by injury, the offense would be ready to pick up the pieces and keep the team rolling toward the postseason. Of course, San Francisco also wished that time wouldn't come as early as Week 6, if at all.
Alas, the witching hour arrived Sunday in Atlanta when the Niners' defense, battered by injury attrition, finally looked vulnerable, leaving the onus to win on the shoulders of an uneven Niners offense. It was a reasonable plea considering the defense did most of the heavy lifting for the first five weeks.
The 49ers' offense was not up to the challenge, as the Atlanta Falcons bludgeoned San Francisco with a physical blueprint ripped straight from the Niners handbook on the way to a 28-14 victory. The loss dropped the Niners to 3-3 and left them with an increasingly long list of injuries to key players as they enter the toughest part of their schedule.
"I feel like they kind of took our game plan," receiver Brandon Aiyuk said. "They ran the ball really well. That's what we like to do on offense, and they kind of did that to us."
As Atlanta's efficient and hard-charging run game won the day against the depleted Niners defense, San Francisco's offense did next to none of the things it normally does to answer back. The Niners' run game was virtually nonexistent (16 carries for 50 yards), they turned it over three times (one was returned for a touchdown), went 3-of-8 on third down and squeezed in some costly drops and penalties at key moments.
"We knew who we were going into this game with and that's just on the offense," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "Putting up zero points in the second half, that's not us. We've just got to get back to the drawing board, get back to our style of football, and I think the rest will take care of itself. But we can't put on a performance like [we had] today."
Indeed, the Niners' offense will need to summon much more moving forward if they're going to remain in the thick of the NFC West and postseason races. By the end of Sunday's loss, the 49ers were down to just four of their projected defensive starters -- linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, safety Talanoa Hufanga and end Samson Ebukam. Which means a whopping seven projected starters entering the season were either on injured reserve, a pregame inactive because of injury or -- in the case of cornerback Charvarius Ward -- departed the game with a new injury.
The 49ers' offense is also banged up, playing without star left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) and losing right tackle Mike McGlinchey to a calf injury Sunday, but still boasts most of its primary weapons. And though the Niners moved the ball against the Falcons, they found a rhythm only in the second quarter and were unable to regain it after halftime.
What's more alarming is that the lack of second-half offensive production has been an ongoing issue. Through the first six weeks, the Niners are averaging six offensive points scored (27th in the NFL) and 4.81 yards per play (26th) in the second half. Those numbers are down from 12 points (12th) and 6.7 yards per play (fifth) in the first half. That lack of second-half production makes coming back from down 14 points (the Niners haven't overcome a 14-point first-quarter deficit to win a game since Oct. 13, 2014) awfully difficult.
Moving the ball wasn't necessarily the problem against the Falcons -- it was finishing drives. Tight end Charlie Woerner and receiver Ray-Ray McCloud dropped deep balls that would have gone for big gains, if not touchdowns. And when Garoppolo finally connected with Aiyuk for a big gain in the fourth quarter, it was called back because of a holding penalty. The Niners didn't score a point in the second half for the first time since a Week 13 loss in Seattle last season.
"We had to put up more points than we did," tight end George Kittle said. "That second half got away from us, and our offense didn't produce when we had to produce. It's disappointing. We've got guys who will make plays, can make plays, and we'll continue to get better this week."
That improvement better come in a hurry, as the Niners look back at an opening six weeks chock-full of missed opportunities and an upcoming schedule where points will need to be plentiful to win.