ATLANTA — The 49ers didn't get their first win here Sunday, but they have may have found a long-term solution at strong safety.
Two days after Michael Lewis requested his release rather than cede playing time, his replacement, rookie Taylor Mays, showed just why the Niners had made plans to phase the 30-year-old Lewis out of the starting lineup.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mays, a second-round draft pick, recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown, had a team-high 11 tackles and wasn't exploited deep by the Falcons' potent passing attack in Atlanta's last-second 16-14 win.
Mays only played on special teams in the season's first three games, but he was ready for his first start.
"You can take all the reps you want at practice and you can study all the film you want, but until you really play the game, it's a completely different feel," Mays said. "Once I got that first series out of the way, and really toward the end of the game, I really calmed down and felt confident."
Mays was part of a secondary that limited Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to a 67.3 passer rating and picked off two passes. Mays, a three-time All-American at USC, was billed as a prospect who was strong in run support, but his coverage skills were a question mark.
"I felt like there's so much I learned, there's so much I got done for the first time," Mays said. "I feel like I'm going to be a pretty good player. It's real tough right now because we lost the game, but at the same time, I'm going to be able to help the team immensely because I'm going to be able to play at a high level and get better."
WHITE STRIKES AGAIN
The situation was much different, but the result was the same.
In the Falcons' 45-10 romp over the Niners last year, Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White stripped the ball from San Francisco cornerback Dre' Bly on an interception return. On Sunday, White did the same to Nate Clements.
Last year, in a game that was already decided, White forced a fumble from Bly, who was hot-dogging about 60 yards from the end zone. His strip of Clements came 10 yards from the end zone with 1:22 left and helped decide the game.
"When I saw him running to the sidelines, I knew he was going to try to score," White said. "I just told myself, "Just get there. Just get there," and I got there."
Tight end Delanie Walker sprained his ankle and left the field on a cart in the second quarter. He did not return, but X-rays were negative. ... Linebacker Manny Lawson (knee contusion) and safety Reggie Smith (hamstring) were injured, but returned to the game. ... Right guard Chilo Rachal was replaced by Adam Snyder. Singletary said Rachal left due to injury, but Rachal was not on the postgame injury report. The Niners offensive line had its best game of the season when Snyder filled in for an injured Rachal in a 25-22 loss to the Saints.
For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at blog.pressdemocrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/Eric_Branch.