Five 49ers to Watch Against the Saints
For the second time this season, the San Francisco 49ers will need to bounce back from a late field-goal loss.
Yet, this time around, they don’t get to take advantage of the comfort of Levi’s Stadium. Instead, the 49ers will remain on the road for the second straight week. At least they will not have another cross-country trip to contend with, as they have been practicing this week in Bradenton, Florida.
On Thanksgiving, the Saints overcame a late Atlanta push (and two onside kicks) to win their third in a row. That win also gave New Orleans an extra three days to scout the 49ers and get ready for this playoff-altering matchup.
The winner of Sunday’s game will take another major stride toward earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs, with the caveat of course being the Seattle Seahawks. With that said: Here are five 49ers to watch against the Saints on Sunday.
When thinking about the Saints, the first thing that comes to mind is quarterback Drew Brees. The future Hall of Famer missed five games with an injury, but returned to win three of his last four starts prior to this week. In his six full games, Brees is averaging 39.17 pass attempts. The 49ers have only faced one quarterback that threw more than 38 passes against them, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, and he was forced to throw 42 times mostly due to the Bengals’ major deficit.
If Brees is allowed to throw that many passes, and given enough time, he will eventually find an open man for a big play. He is too good to not hurt his opponent in some way. However, if the 49ers’ pass rush is quick enough to force bad decisions, everything can change. That is why Nick Bosa is a player to watch in this game. Bosa will most likely draw a lot of attention in the Saints’ protection scheme, as he has for the last month. Despite the additional players in his way, Bosa can wreck the Saints’ offense by getting to Brees early.
It should also be noted that New Orleans left tackle Terron Armstead was limited in practice this week. Bosa was almost a non-factor against the Ravens (one tackle, no TFLs or QB hits). However, he and the rest of the pass rushers have dealt with a lot of mobile quarterbacks of late with the 49ers facing Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray (twice) and Russell Wilson four out of the last five weeks. Getting to face a pocket passer that is limited with his legs should allow Bosa to make a bigger impact this week.
Richard Sherman/Ahkello Witherspoon
Michael Thomas, like George Kittle, is the most important player on his team’s offense. The Saints were able to overcome the loss of Brees thanks to Thomas’ ability to overtake a game. Thomas leads the NFL in receiving yards (1290), receptions (110) and receiving yards per game (107.5). He also has the most 15+ receiving yard catches (32) per Pro Football Focus.
To make things simple, Thomas is really good. Whether it’s Ahkello Witherspoon or Richard Sherman, the cornerback tasked with marking the NFL’s best receiver must quickly be able to move onto the next play, because Thomas will find a way to beat you at least once.
Sherman and Witherspoon have both played well this season. Of course the stellar pass rush has decreased the chances of receivers getting open, but the defensive backs have all still made the most of their opportunities. Witherspoon and Sherman have created a quality trio with potential Pro Bowl nickel K’Waun Williams. Reserve corner Emmanuel Moseley was also no slouch in his time on the field.
The key for anyone that draws Thomas should be to limit the lethal play. His big body and great hands make it easy to get above shorter defensive backs for highlight catches, but if he is immediately tackled, and a touchdown is prevented, the 49ers’ defense can live to see another day.
The reserve safety might make his first start of the season on Sunday. After a promotion from the practice squad on Oct. 2, Harris has mostly seen action on special teams. His role changed last Sunday when starting safety Jaquiski Tartt was injured. Harris quickly made an impact by stripping Jackson and recovering the ball all in one motion. Harris most likely won’t get many chances to tackle Brees downfield, but he will have opportunities to make plays on the many New Orleans’ playmakers.
While fellow safety Jimmie Ward will likely draw the majority of the downfield assignments, Harris will be tasked with replacing the physicality Tartt brought to the defense. Ward and linebacker Fred Warner match up well with running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook, but one mismatch the Saints do have is quarterback/offensive weapon Taysom Hill.
The wildcat quarterback rushed and received a touchdown in the Saints’ last game and can hurt the 49ers in multiple ways. Harris will likely get a shot at taking the BYU product down. If the inexperienced Harris can limit mistakes and prevent Hill from finding the open field, that should go a long way toward a San Francisco win.
Joe Staley/Daniel Brunskill
Veteran left tackle Joe Staley could make his second return of the season on Sunday. His replacement, Daniel Brunskill, has performed exceptionally well, especially in pass-blocking. Brunskill’s performances have saved the 49ers this year, and it wouldn’t be wrong to keep him as the starting left tackle for the remainder of the season.
Yet, if Staley is healthy, and head coach Kyle Shanahan chooses to reinstate him as the starter, he won’t have much time to readjust. New Orleans’ 40 sacks are tied for fourth in the NFL and defensive end Cameron Jordan is second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks.
In Staley’s last game, he struggled to protect against the Seattle pass rush. Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed essentially dictated the game. Staley and the rest of the 49ers’ line cannot let that happen this week. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo not only needs the time to find the open receiver, he needs his blindside protected, as fumbles inside his own 30 yard line have fueled both San Francisco losses this season.
It shouldn’t be a shock that when the 49ers’ best big-play wide receiver is shut out in the second half, the offense struggles. After burning the Ravens on the first drive of the game with a 33-yard touchdown catch on fourth down, Samuel had just two more positive plays. He had only one target in the second half, which had a lot to do with why San Francisco scored just three points in the final 30 minutes.
It’s no secret the top-three targets on the 49ers are Emmanuel Sanders, Kittle and Samuel. All three have carved out perfect roles in the offense. Samuel’s physical, yet agile playing style can turn a bad play into a touchdown.
His 12 broken tackles are second in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. As one of the most electrifying players on the team, the 49ers need him involved. Whether on reverses, jet sweeps (six rushes for 57 yards and a touchdown), or screen passes, Samuel must get the ball more on Sunday to keep San Francisco’s offense at its best.