The Saints now lead the NFC following results over week 13 and go into their biggest game of the season following their Thanksgiving week mini bye. The 49ers losing to the Ravens, combined with the Seahawks beating the Vikings sent the Saints to #1 and they can extend their lead over San Francisco with a victory in New Orleans on Sunday. This is a potential NFC Championship preview. Back to the usual format this week, where I will look at some key players for the opposition and how the Saints can combat them.
There aren’t a huge number of names that jump off the page when talking about the 49ers offense, so I will start with the man under centre. Jimmy Garoppolo. Having always been touted as Tom Brady’s successor, Jimmy G never really struck me as a franchise Quarterback. He was done well this year without setting the record books alight. 2896 yards for 21 TDs and 10 picks on the year for Garoppolo, his pass completion is 69% but these numbers tend to drop under pressure. Jimmy G is still young and is developing his game, the offense he currently resides in suits him very well but the Saints will be hoping he throws more than not in this game and especially keeping him down the middle where their excellent tandem safeties like to operate. With Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport getting up in his face he may struggle in the LOUD atmosphere.
Tight end George Kittle is probably the most explosive player on the 49ers offense. The big bodied player has traits of a wide receiver but the frame and blocking ability of a TE. His yards after catch are what impresses me most as a receiving TE. The speed for such a big man is outstanding. He wasn’t used as much against the Ravens, with San Fran choosing the ground game in the conditions on the day and Kittle being used as a blocker. Kittle has 687 yards and 3 TDs but hasn’t featured in every game this year.
A trade which a lot of Saints fans (myself included) wanted was to get Emmanuel Sanders. The wide receiver has made some plays since arriving from the Denver Broncos via a trade. 617 yards and 4 TDs across both his teams this season. Again, it’s his speed that would be a threat for the Saints with deep shots. He has great hands too, making some very unlikely catches in his time in the NFL.
The 49ers are most definitely a run heavy offense. Matt Breida (542 yards on 109 carries, 1 TD)has been held back a bit in recent weeks to prepare for this game so Raheem Mostert (539 on 92 carries, 3 TDs) has been utilised a lot more. Tevin Coleman is also a hugely used player, especially in the Red Zone (454 yards on 120 carries, 6 TDs). With the Saints run defense being one of the better ones in the league at the moment, their aim is to force Jimmy G to throw to a previously limited wide receiver corp. An issue the Saints may have is injuries at the Linebacker position with both Kiko Alonso and AJ Klein being listed on the injury report this week. Old friend Manti Te’o has been brought back in to get some needed depth at the position.
With other players going out injured around him, Deebo Samuel has had to step up. The rookie out of South Carolina is someone that can hurt you with deep shots and his speed. He is the 2nd leader receiver for the 49ers behind Kittle with 564 yards on just 42 receptions and 3 scores. He will certainly be involved through the air.
Pressure, pressure and more pressure is what will win the Saints this side of the ball. Force mistakes and hit the QB! Stop those stupid penalties too, don’t let the refs become a factor in another important game.
The side of the ball where the 49ers excel has to be this one. The pass rush has racked up 45 sacks this season, which ranks 2nd in the NFL, just one behind Carolina but New Orleans is only 5 back from that themselves (9 sack day on Thursday last week helped). There certainly are some stars over on this side.
Nick Bosa is the star for this defense line and pass rush, even though he is still young. 8 sacks on the year but his speed and physical play is what causes the biggest issue for opposing offensive lines. He usually starts on the right of the 49ers defense which is an issue for the Saints with injuries on their left side. The Saints will hope Terron Armstead is back in for this game to deal with his big threat. If not, there is an option to put Ryan Ramczyk there or it will be Patrick Omameh again. Some blocking tight ends may be required on Sunday, Josh Hill usually the guy for this so Jared Cook can get loose down the field.
Arik Armstead is the sack leader with 10 by himself. When he and Bosa are running at you it isn’t easy to deal with, hence why they are 2nd in sacks attained in the NFL. The Saints offensive line will certainly have their work cut out keeping Brees clean. I’ve seen a lot of talk around how the 49ers “destroy” pocket passers. While this may be true, they haven’t played in the Superdome yet against someone with the vast experience of Drew Brees in the pocket, he will need all of his 40 years to avoid pressure in this one.
The pressure doesn’t stop there, Fred Warner has recorded the most tackles for the 49ers this year with a big 92 plus 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. The list goes on without even going into detail on DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.
Richard Sherman has a question mark over him whether he is going to play or not. The likelihood is he will be rested during practise this week but make the game and cover the Saints MVP Michael Thomas. This should be a great match-up but honestly, Thomas has played so well this season, I have him beating anyone. Still, Sherman has huge amounts of experience and has already got 3 picks this season.
Running the ball down the 49ers throats with all options is the key here with those more occasional shots to CGM and Jared Cook. When the pass is used, keep Brees clean, use those classic screens to Kamara, create space upfront and dominate the clock.
The games in which San Francisco have struggled or lost are ones where the run game has been limited and Jimmy G has attempted more passes, forcing them to be a one-dimensional offense. The Saints will look to do the same on this side of the ball. When the Saints have the ball, they MUST protect Brees, establish the run, using all weapons they have at their exposal, AK, Murray as well as Taysom Hill. The Saints will need to control the clock and the scoring to see this through. It’s going to be a slug-fest and I hope the black and gold can come out on top. I’ve got this one going to OT or maybe a similar situation to what the 49ers faced last week with a late FG settling it.
One thing is for sure, the Saints will have to play their best game of the season this Sunday, no more “you haven’t seen our best yet” THIS is the time to step up. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Superdome on Sunday, play your part. Get Loud. Be Proud. Scream the house down and help the Saints get the W!
Saints 21 – San Fran 21 (Whoever wins the toss in OT wins)