Derick E. Hingle, USA Today Sports

Derick E. Hingle, USA Today Sports


Five Ways the Saints Can Take Down the 49ers (And Why They Won’t)

Don Atkinson
Dec 7, 2019 at 5:54 PM0


It's been said since Week One, and it hasn't much changed, that the 49ers-Saints matchup Sunday will be one of the biggest of the year for both teams. At stake is the Number 1 seed position in the playoffs, home field advantage, and perhaps bragging rights over being the NFC's best team with three weeks to play.

The Saints enter the game, predictably, as the homefield favorites, though Las Vegas has essentially called this one, by making the visiting 49ers a mere 2.5 point underdog, a tossup. If last week's game against the Baltimore Ravens didn't solidify opinions about where the 49ers potentially stand in the playoff melee that's ahead, this game undoubtedly will. The Saints have remained consistent favorites to win the NFC since the season began and have already clinched the NFC South. The 49ers have become the Cinderella team of 2019, and are currently locked in a war with the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West crown.

Both the Saints and the 49ers have a world-class coaching staff, both have talent at key positions, and both have the potential to make a Super Bowl appearance this year. And both have the other standing right in the way.

The mechanism for bringing the Saints down this week has been under the microscope in Camp 49er, to be certain. 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan almost certainly has devised a game plan to do just that. On the other sideline, Saints' Head Coach Sean Payton is doing the same, figuring out ways to frustrate the 49ers passing game and plug up running lanes, all while fending off what has proven to be the most imposing defensive line in the NFL.

Neither has an easy job. But it's not difficult to see how perhaps Payton has a greater hill to climb right now. Because while there are ways to topple the 49ers in this spot, planning and execution are two different animals.

So how to bring the 49er machine to a halt in this game? A few things stand as possibilities.

Jam up the 49ers run game.
Easier said than done. And that is a far less effective plan now than earlier in the season, when the 49ers were still pre-Emmanuel Sanders and playing musical snaps with their battery of younger wideouts. Jamming the run against the 49ers requires very nearly a full sell-out to that, and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has shown he's more than ready, willing and able to throw over the crowd in the box to get to Sanders, Kendrick Bourne and rookie Deebo Samuel.

The 49ers' passing game has solidified since those receivers have settled in place, and Garoppolo is looking more confident as a passer with each game. A healthy George Kittle, both as a pass catcher and run blocker, bolsters the run game even more.

Against the Baltimore Ravens' bruising defense, 49ers running back Raheem Mostert racked up nearly 150 yards by himself, and the Saints on dry ground aren't likely to pose a heavier obstacle than did the Ravens. With running back Matt Breida back in the mix and Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson both healthy and ready to go as well, the idea of stopping the 49ers' running game seems like more pipe-dream than probable.

Double up on the 49ers' key receivers.
Blanketing tight end George Kittle is the burning desire of most every team that has played, or will play, the 49ers this season. Kittle wasn't a huge factor as a pass catcher in last week's rain-soaked game in Baltimore, and he's been hampered by a nagging ankle injury since his return to the lineup a few weeks ago. But he's now playing inside the dome in New Orleans, and by all indications he's primed to take center stage once again in the 49ers' offense.

The quandary the Saints will have is that they will likely need to choose between a defensive game plan designed to stop the 49ers' powerful running game, and one more focused on covering receivers. Loading the box hasn't worked well for teams facing San Francisco this year, as that puts receivers in single coverage --- something the 49ers would relish. With Kittle, Sanders, Samuel and Bourne all potentially operating in single coverage, the 49ers will be able to both generate some big catches and stretch the field as well.

The run stopping and short pass coverage burden for the Saints gets even heavier given the state of their linebacking crew, where starting linebackers Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein are both out with injuries. The situation is so serious, in fact, that New Orleans had to make a quickly crafted Thanksgiving deal with Manti Te'o, whom the team had released last season after being scratched from a good chunk of the Saints' 2018 games, in order to cover the roster gap. Te'o hasn't played since his release and jumping in cold against both the 49ers' running backs and tight end Kittle is hardly what Sean Payton wanted to see, but the Saints' have few other options.

With severe problems at the linebacker position, it's hard to envision the Saints' being able to enlist any double coverage on receivers and contain the run at the same time. Something is going to give, and from how the personnel matches up, it will likely be the Saints' defense that comes up on the dirty end of the stick.

Go deep against the 49ers' corners.
Getting up early on the 49ers, and staying up, could happen with big pass plays down the field. Targeting the Saints' primary receiver Michael Thomas early and often could surely be a key to a Saints' victory. Thomas is one of the league's best wideouts and has over 1,200 yards already on the season. And Saints' quarterback Drew Brees, even at age 40, is experienced in big games and is always a threat.

But here's where it gets ugly for New Orleans: Apart from Thomas, and perhaps ex-49er Ted Ginn, Jr., there's little remarkable about the Saints' wideout crew, and it's not an encouraging circumstance if Thomas isn't having a monster day. Thrower-receiver hybrid Taysom Hill is an interesting and quirky option for Brees, but there's more gimmick than game-long threat in him. Michael Thomas isn't liable to get wide open much, so he's going to need to pull out a little wizardry to get the 49ers' defensive secondary on its heels.

Going deep is also going to mandate that Brees gets enough time holding the ball for his receivers to get downfield. This may be the toughest nut for the Saints to crack. Like all defensive units across the NFL, the 49ers have had their struggles against highly mobile quarterbacks, including Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Arizona's Kyler Murray, and Seattle's Russell Wilson. But against traditional pocket passers, the 49ers have truly feasted. New Orleans is already a bit challenged on the offensive line, with starting guard Andrus Peat and starting tackle Terron Armstead both out. That bodes well for the 49ers, who are a bit healthier now and fielding all four starting defensive linemen.

One more factor? The 49ers' defensive backfield is smart, reactive and stingy. Led by veteran corner Richard Sherman, the 49ers' secondary is largely overlooked, there in the shadow of the team's defensive line, but it's clearly one of the best in the league. The Saints may plot to take advantage of backup safety Marcell Harris, but like the rest of the team's defensive backs, Harris is aggressive and getting the big throw deep more than once may not be in the offing for Brees and the Saints.

Spring Alvin Kamara loose.
Getting the most out of Saints' running back Alvin Kamara is going to require getting him highly involved as both a runner and pass catcher. The 49ers are better against the pass than the run this season but deploying Kamara well in either role is going to be no easy task for the Saints. The 49ers held the league's best running offense in the Ravens last week to well under 200 yards, a feat few playing the Ravens have been able to pull off this year.

Kamara will likely have 49ers Pro-Bowl caliber linebacker Fred Warner keying on him all game long, so Sean Payton's play-calling is going to need to be highly creative in order to get Karama into open space. The 49ers' defense may also be the best combination of strength and speed the Saints have seen all year, and as a team they miss very few tackles.

Like Michael Thomas, Kamara is going to have to play mistake-free football in order to have a major effect on the outcome of the game.

Win the turnover game.
This is a key in nearly every game, but if the Saints can create a +3 or even +2 difference on turnovers, they could get on top and possibly remain there. The Saints don't turn the ball over much; they are +11 on the season, with the 49ers +6. But the way the 49ers are playing more disciplined football in the second half of the season, and with a defensive front primed to put an enormous amount of pressure on Brees in this game, it seems more likely than not that the 49ers will win the turnover battle, or at the very least go even, making it less of an important factor.

There are many variables in this game, but in the end, it may well come down to how well both offensive lines protect their respective quarterbacks. How easily those linemen create lanes for their running backs, and how the two defenses will respond to their own time on the field will magnify the gaps in execution, where they might exist.

Either team can be beat, and talent is always a key. And skillful game plans can make or break success. But will, intensity and confidence mean just as much in games like this. And in that way, especially with so much on the line, it's tough to believe the 49ers don't walk out of this one with a win.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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