The San Francisco 49ers will make their way back to New Orleans once again to face the Saints. Last year was a very different story. The Saints didn’t have their head coach, Sean Payton, with them. Payton is one of the better playcallers in the NFL. Losing him took a large toll on the team. This year he is back and the Saints are sporting a 7-2 record. They added defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and he has brought an aggressive approach to the team. This game will be a tall task for the 49ers. Let’s take a look at five things to watch for in the matchup featuring the San Francisco 49ers vs New Orleans Saints.
1) Drew Brees and the Passing Game
Drew Brees is off to another strong passing season once again. He already has more than 3,000 yards passing and 25 touchdowns. These kind of numbers are video game like stats after 10 weeks of football. Brees is a coach on the field and there are very few head coach/quarterback combinations that can rival Brees/Payton. There are an assortment of receivers that Brees has at his disposal. Jimmy Graham is trending to have one of the best statistical seasons ever by tight end. At this point, he has 805 yards, 10 touchdowns and 54 receptions. He has proven to be a big play threat as shown by his 14.9 yards per catch. The Saints like to use him in the slot and create matchup problems for the opposing defense. Graham at is a very athletic player, especially for his size; 6-foot, 265 pounds. It is very hard to match up to that size and athleticism.
The Saints also like to stack Darren Sproles in tight bunch formations with Jimmy Graham. Graham will run a vertical route while Sproles breaks to the flat. They make a habit of killing defenses with this route combo. Sproles is also very dangerous running choice routes out of the backfield. His shiftiness is often to much for most linebackers to handle. It will be interesting seeing how he matches up with Navorro Bowman.
The receiving corps is another dangerous option in the passing game. Marques Colston is a big bodied receiver that can do it all for the Saints. They use him in the slot opposite of Graham and have him work the middle of the field on digs along with shallow crossing routes. Recently Kenny Stills, the rookie from Oklahoma, has blossomed into a serious deep threat. He is averaging 23 yards per catch and has scored four touchdowns. This passing game will look to challenge the 49ers early and often to get the home crowd pumped up.
2) 49ers Rushing Offense
Some say that the best defense for a high powered offense is to play keepaway. That may be partially true. The 49ers will need to be sure to feed Frank Gore the ball more than 20 times. Colin Kaepernick has a much better quarterback rating when Gore gets his share of carries. That’s because it keeps the defense honest. The 49ers as an offense have a easier time getting in a groove when Gore is running the ball. As we know, the offensive line is built for the shoe to shoe style of play that will be required to control the clock against the Saints. Greg Roman has placed the blame upon himself and his playcalling throughout the 49ers losses. It will be very important for him to understand the importance of maintaining long, time consuming drives that will break the will of the Saints defense. The read option will need to be in use along with the inside running game by way of wham and trap blocks. Vernon Davis is probable for this game so the 49ers should have the personnel to play smashmouth football.
Brooks is coming off of a pretty strong showing against the Carolina Panthers. He did an excellent job of setting the edge against the Panthers. He will be needed to do that against the Saints this week. More importantly, he has been able to get pressure on the quarterback. That will be very important against the Saints. His ability to drop back into coverage will be needed as well. Last year, Brooks dropped back and stepped into a passing lane to intercept a throw by Brees. He took it the distance for a touchdown right before the first half ended. Brooks has been able to get his hands on throws by quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage. Brees is able to move within the pocket to find passing lanes. Let’s see if Brooks will be able to get any pass knockdowns this week.
4) How Will The 49ers Deal With The Heavy Blitzing From Rob Ryan
Keeping the pocket clean will be a very important thing for the 49ers offensive line. Rob Ryan is a blitz heavy coordinator. He will surely have the blitz coming from everywhere. Greg Roman needs to dial up some bubble screens to Mario Manningham on the outside. The New York Jets were able to find some success on bubble screens to Greg Salas when they played the Saints. Roman needs to also use some bunch formations and run rub routes. This will help get the receivers open quickly against the press coverage that normally accompanies the blitz. It is all about timing. The press is designed to disrupt the timing of the passing game by rerouting the receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Picking up the blitz and converting the route accordingly is another thing that the 49ers need to do. The Panthers blitzed on one occasion and Vance McDonald had a chance at a big play. All he had to do was recognize the blitz and make his route adjustment. This is usually just simply running to the window that is vacated by the blitz. McDonald didn’t do so and wasn’t looking at Kaepernick as he got off his release. Kaepernick saw the blitz and was going to make the throw to McDonald but had to tuck it back down and reverse field because McDonald wasn’t looking back as the blitz got closer to him. The result was an incompletion. Lamichael James will be active for this game so that is another weapon that the 49ers can use to fight the blitz. He can be very dangerous on screens. The same thing can be said for Gore and Kendall Hunter. The running backs will be open on underneath routes when the Saints blitz.
5) The 49ers Tight Ends
The 49ers clearly like to go to Vernon Davis in the passing game. Delanie Walker was the recipient of a few big time throws by Kaepernick in last year’s game. It was the second start of Kaepernick’s career and the chemistry with Davis was still in the building stages. This year is a different story. Kenny Vaccaro will be out for this game so the matchups will be favorable for the 49ers. Look for Davis to get the ball on some form of vertical route. McDonald needs to get the ball in the flats and get a chance to bowl over one of the Saints defensive backs. This will work out of play action, especially in the read option. Teams like to use the scrape-exchange to defend the read option. When this happens, the outside linebacker is keying on Kaepernick running. He will aggressively try to set the edge and force him back inside. In doing so, he will leave the tight end that can release to the flat open. That would set up well for the 49ers offense.
All in all, this is a very winnable game. The Saints have struggled with the 49ers in the last two meetings. The physical defense and smashmouth running game is something that is a key in taking the home crowd out of the game. The 49ers will need to get Gore his touches and limit the big plays from the Saints offense. If they can do so, they have a very good shot of winning this game.