photo from sfgate.com file: San Francisco 49er tight end George Kittle (85) looks to see if he made it over the line of scrimmage for a first down during the season opener against the Tampa Bay Bucs on September 8th
By: Joe Lami
The Niners are two-thirds through their hellish stretch, and they’ve managed to go 1-1. Unfortunately, the loss last Sunday to Baltimore proved to be critical in the NFC West race. Both the Seahawks and 49ers go into week 14 with a 10-2 record, but Seattle owns the tiebreaker, meaning San Francisco is currently the five-seed in the NFC. They’re still four games remaining, but the Niners can’t afford another slip-up.
This weekend’s game against the Saints proves to be vital towards their chances at the division and a potential first-round bye. The Saints come into the contest with a 10-2 record and appear to be a team with Super Bowl aspirations. However, they’ve cruised through an easy schedule, not facing a team above .500 since September.
Drew Brees has been excellent since returning from a hand injury that forced him out five weeks. He’s gone 4-1 and thrown ten touchdowns to just two interceptions thanks to some great protection up-front. However, the Saints could be thin on the left side of their offensive line. Former Stanford standout, Andreas Peat has already been listed out with a forearm injury, while Terron Armstead is listed as questionable.
Without two of Brees’ biggest hogs upfront, the Niners’ pass rush will be salivating at the mouth to get after a pocket-passing QB. Because of the ferocious pass rush the Niners bring, I expect Brees to get the ball out fast and target Alvin Kamara. Kamara has 1,031 all-purpose yards this year, with 444 coming through the air on 63 catches. He’s also rushed for 587 yards. Brees won’t be afraid to dump the ball off to the elusive running back.
If given time to throw, Michael Thomas becomes the biggest concern for San Francisco. Thomas is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and it’s not close. The league leader in receptions (110) and receiving yards (1,290), he’s on pace to shatter New Orleans’ records and the single-season NFL record. He’s also within striking distance of Calvin Johnson’s single-season yards record if he balls out the next couple of games.
Richard Sherman returned to full practice on Friday for the Niners and will be ready to go, but unfortunately, Jaquiski Tartt will be out due to broken ribs. The good news for the red and gold is that everyone else, but Joe Staley, returned to full practice on Friday. Staley is still listed as questionable with a broken finger.
The Saints’ most dangerous threat might be Taysom Hill. The swiss-army knife displayed his unique speed and skill with two touchdowns last week on Thanksgiving. The Niners obviously struggle with speed at QB, as Kyler Murray, Russ Wilson, and Lamar Jackson have indicated. If Hill gets his hands on the ball, he could be a game wrecker.
Defensively, the Saints have good numbers across the board. They’re not elite, but they’re nothing to scoff at either. They’re top 12 in every significant category, but appear to struggle with the run more than the pass. With Matt Brieda expected to return for the Niners, they’re going to test the Saints run-defense ability like they’ve had with every other team all year. San Francisco brings the #2 run offense in the league to the Big Easy.
The Saints are, for sure, a contender in the NFC, but they haven’t been challenged since week three. Are they going to be able to handle a 49ers’ team that’s playing their third playoff-caliber opponent in a row?