SAN FRANCISCO (AP)—Revenge was far from Jim Mora’s mind after he led his Atlanta Falcons past his former employers.
Instead, the coach felt only pride—both in his new defense and in the players he left behind in San Francisco.
Aaron Beasley returned a goal-line interception 85 yards in the fourth quarter, and Rod Coleman batted down Tim Rattay’s pass on a 2-point conversion attempt with 40 seconds left in the Falcons’ 21-19 victory over the 49ers on Sunday.
Warrick Dunn rushed for two touchdowns and Michael Vick was 13-of-22 for 163 yards in an uninspiring debut under Mora, the longtime San Francisco defensive coordinator who took over the Falcons last January.
But most of Vick’s struggles were caused by San Francisco’s defense, which matched nearly every big play made by Atlanta’s revitalized D.
The defensive duel left Mora happy, but conflicted.
“It may sound crazy, but I was extremely proud of our defense, and I was also proud of their defense,” Mora said. “Those are some guys that I coached for a long time.”
Though Mora still has plenty of work to do, his defense showed marked improvement from last season’s 32nd-ranked squad, keeping San Francisco out of the end zone until the final minutes. Beasley and Coleman made the biggest plays, but Mora gave credit to every defender for Atlanta’s first win in San Francisco since 1991.
“This is a new era in Falcon football,” Beasley said. “We can’t live by what happened last year. That’s gone. This is Coach Mora’s team, and it’s going to be a whole lot different.”
After struggling through mistakes and injuries to two quarterbacks, the 49ers came within a short pass of forcing overtime.
Rattay, Jeff Garcia’s longtime backup who was handed the starting job by the club’s offseason salary purge, left his fourth career start in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and an aching head after Coleman pounded him on a second-quarter sack.
But Rattay returned to lead two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. He finished 18-of-31 for 175 yards.
“I was pretty hazy,” Rattay said. “I don’t know if I got a concussion or not. … I didn’t play very well, but it’s all about winning or losing, not how you played.”
Cedrick Wilson caught Rattay’s first scoring pass with 6:14 left. Rattay then hit Eric Johnson with a 16-yard TD pass, capping a gritty 62-yard drive— but Coleman blocked Rattay’s low pass to Brandon Lloyd on the conversion attempt.
Neither team was particularly impressive in its opener, making obvious mistakes and executing poorly, particularly on offense. It started early: San Francisco’s Keith Lewis blocked Chris Mohr’s punt on Atlanta’s first possession, but Kevan Barlow fumbled on the 49ers’ first play.
Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler and Dunn scored early touchdowns, but the Falcons mostly struggled in their first game running the West Coast-flavored offense of coordinator Greg Knapp, who left the 49ers with Mora.
Vick spent much of the day running from All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson, who forced two fumbles and sacked Vick twice.
“We did a good job on Michael, but we need to get better in all areas,” San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson said. “I liked the way the team fought back.”
Ken Dorsey replaced Rattay in the second quarter and guided the 49ers to two field goals, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 14-6. Jeff Ulbrich intercepted Vick’s tipped pass midway through the third quarter to set up the second kick.
After Dorsey hurt his shoulder late in the third period, Rattay returned and drove San Francisco to the Atlanta 3 with 9 1/2 minutes left.
But Beasley stepped in front of Curtis Conway in the end zone and rambled all the way back to the San Francisco 15, dodging several tackles along the way.
“That was just a calculated guess,” Beasley said. “I was praying, praying it wasn’t a fade route.”
Dunn scored moments later, spinning into the end zone for a 9-yard TD and a 21-6 lead.
The Niners lost CB Mike Rumph to a groin injury in the first half. He’s doubtful for next week. … Former San Francisco CB Jason Webster made five tackles in his first game with Atlanta. “It was like playing against my brothers,” he said. … Atlanta RB T.J. Duckett didn’t carry the ball until late in the third quarter.