Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
When the season began you would have been hard pressed to find a Niner fan who wouldn’t have said, “Thank you very much” to a 10-6 season, but with four games remaining in the regular season, the 49ers are 10-2 and 10-6 would be a major disappointment.
On Sunday the 49ers wrap up the most difficult 3-game stretch in modern NFL history against the Saints in New Orleans. With a win and a Rams loss, the 49ers can clinch a playoff berth and if the 49ers win out, they will be the number one seed in the NFC and earn a much needed first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For all intents and purposes, the playoffs start now for the 49ers, and so what do the 49ers need to do to get the win on Sunday and move to 11-2?
On paper, the game against the Saints is strength against strength. The Saints are a pass first (and second and third) team. The Saints pass the ball on 62 percent of their plays and the 49ers allow a league-low 134.2 passing yards per game. The 49ers have the second most sacks in the NFL while the New Orleans has given up the sixth fewest sacks.
For the Niners, their first choice is to run the ball and they feature the second-best running game in the NFL on a yards-per-game basis, while the Saints defense ranks third best in the league in that category allowing just 88.6 yards per game.
The 49ers’ Defense Vs. the Saints’ Offense:
The axiom de jure in the NFL is “make your opponent play left handed,” which is to say make your opponent go away from his strength. In this matchup, the 49ers’ ability to rush the passer, especially stationary ones like Drew Brees, is so strong that the Saints dropping back to throw nearly two thirds of the time plays right into the Niners’ strength and away from their weakness (run defense).
The Saints have tremendous skill players in wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, both of whom will be a challenge for Robert Saleh and the defense and should force someone else on the New Orleans offense to beat them.
The 49ers have been susceptible to the screen pass this season, and with Kamara on the receiving end the defense will need to be on high alert.
The majority of Drew Brees’ passes this season have been to the middle of the field, so look for the 49ers to play a lot of zone coverage with a “robber” in the middle of the field to take away some of the options there.
The 49ers have teased some three-safety looks this season and perhaps they may show some of that this week to help on Kamara and tight end Jared Cook in pass coverage.
The Taysom Hill Factor:
The popular opinion regarding this game among some NFL analysts is that the Saints will be able to deploy do-everything quarterback Taysom Hill with some success against the 49ers due to their struggles against mobile quarterbacks. Most of Hill’s success comes from the fact that it is difficult for a team to prepare for a zone read running quarterback while primarily preparing to stop the Saints passing attack. The 49ers, however, just spent an entire week preparing for the idealized version of Hill in Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson and all of the principles and concepts that go into defending such an attack will be fresh in their minds.
The 49ers’ Offense vs. the Saints’ Defense:
Unlike Saints teams of recent vintage, the strength lies on the defensive side of the ball. Much like the 49ers, the best defensive unit for New Orleans is their defensive line. New Orleans has the ability to both rush the passer (the Saints are tied for the fourth most sacks in the NFL) and stop the run.
The area that Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers offense will look to exploit will be the Saints’ linebackers in both the run and pass game, and New Orleans strong safety Vonn Bell in pass coverage.
The Saints linebacking corps has been hit by the injury bug this week; neither Kiko Alonso nor A.J. Klein practiced on Wednesday or Thursday prompting the Saints to re-sign Manti Te’o as insurance.
As a play caller, Kyle Shanahan is excellent at putting the opposing team’s linebackers in conflict by making them react to plays that trigger their run keys and force them to play the pass behind it.
The 49ers’ base personnel of a running back, full back and tight end figure to factor into the passing game a lot this week. With Joe Staley set to return this week there is an opportunity to throw a bit of a wrinkle at New Orleans with offensive tackle Daniel Brunskill, a former college tight end, coming in as a second tight end to be an extra blocker and give Jimmy Garoppolo extra time to take a deep shot to George Kittle, especially if he is matched up against Vonn Bell, who struggles in pass coverage.
The Saints are tied for second in the NFL in turnover margin, in large part because they don’t turn the ball over on offense that often, so when the 49ers have the ball it will be key for them to focus on ball security, especially Jimmy Garoppolo.
In The End:
The Saints have the advantage of playing at home with the extra rest that comes from playing on Thursday night; there is no doubt that Saints coach Sean Payton will have some wrinkles drawn up for this game, but the 49ers are built specifically to beat teams like New Orleans. On Sunday, it will be key for the 49ers to get off to a quick start in order to neutralize the crowd noise advantage. The key to a 49er victory is not complicated. The Niners simply need to do what they have done all season on defense; pressure Brees with just the front four and drop seven guys into coverage; a task that will be aided by a Saints offensive line that could be without two starters.
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