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Saints Run Defense Must Hold Up Against Physical 49ers Attack

A New Orleans run defense that has struggled most of the year faces a huge challenge against a physical San Francisco running game in Week 12.
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Two old rivals square off when the 4-7 New Orleans Saints travel to meet the 6-4 San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Saints are coming off a 27-20 home win over the Rams that snapped a two-game losing streak and need a win to stay alive in the NFC South. San Francisco has won three straight and is tied for the NFC West lead.

New Orleans ranks 12th in total defense, allowing an average of 327.3 yards per game. However, a run defense that dominated the NFL from 2018 through last season has struggled all year. 

San Francisco owns one of the league's most balanced offenses. The 49ers can attack defenses in multiple ways and average 362.7 total yards per game, ranking eighth in the NFL. Despite their multi-faceted attack, the 49ers focus on establishing the run to set up the rest of their playbook.

Here's how the New Orleans defense matches up against the San Francisco running game. 

Saints Run Defense 

- 24.3 points per game (25th)

- 132 rushing yards/game (22nd)

- 4.6 per rush (23rd)

- 11 rushing touchdowns (19th)

- 51 tackles for loss 

- 38.8% 3rd Down Percentage (12th)

New Orleans Saints linebackers Kaden Elliss (55) and Demario Davis (56) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebackers Kaden Elliss (55) and Demario Davis (56) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Even with a win last week, the Saints run defense is still a concern. They gave up 148 yards on the ground to the Rams, a season-best for a team that had averaged a meager 68 yards rushing previously.

New Orleans has now allowed an average of over 184 yards rushing in the last three weeks. Two of those were to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles teams that had ranked at the bottom of the league. Remember that they had also been pushed around by inferior offensive lines from Arizona, Carolina, and Atlanta earlier this season. Those three teams averaged 161 yards on the ground when facing New Orleans. 

The Saints need better play from their defensive tackles. It's a position that's showed some signs of life in recent weeks, but has still been a big disappointment most of the year. David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, and Kentavius Street need to do better at stonewalling blockers at the point of attack and getting penetration into opposing backfields.

Their inability to win interior battles has allowed teams to create rushing lanes inside of the Saints defensive ends, or get off-tackle when the ends crash inside to compensate. It could be an even bigger concern because of injuries to ends Cam Jordan (eye), Marcus Davenport (calf), and Payton Turner (ankle).

Jordan missed last week, while Davenport has missed the last two contests. Turner was hurt on a big third down stop against the Rams and could miss a few games. Carl Granderson and Tanoh Kpassagnon had outstanding outings against the Rams, but Jordan and Davenport are one of the better edge tandems in the league. Each could suit up against the 49ers, but their practice statuses are worth watching this week. 

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) is stopped by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) is stopped by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY

Eleventh-year LB Demario Davis is having another elite year. Davis is second on the team with 66 tackles, which includes a team-high 9 stops for loss. One of the NFL's best all-around defenders, Davis has a rare combination of terrific anticipation and instincts, athleticism for sideline-to-sideline pursuit, and ferocious closing burst to the ball.

Pete Werner, the Saints leading tackler, has missed the last two games with an ankle injury that's expected to sideline him for a few more weeks. Fourth-year LB Kaden Elliss has stepped up in his place to play stellar ball. Elliss has had 23 tackles in the last three games, including three for loss. He doesn't have Werner's ability in the open field, but is a physical downhill defender that creates havoc. 

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (3) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) . Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (3) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) . Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Another reason for the Saints struggles against the run has been poor tackling throughout the entire unit. Safeties Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu were big offseason acquisitions that have played far below expectations. Maye has missed four games with injuries and has made minimal impact when he has played. 

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49ers Rushing Attack 

- 23.6 points per game (11th)

- 127.2 rushing yards/game (12th)

- 10 rushing touchdowns 

- 4.5 per rush (15th)

- 46.4% 3rd Down Percentage (5th)

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs past Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. (3) and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26). Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs past Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. (3) and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26). Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY

San Francisco traded leading rusher Jeff Wilson to the Miami Dolphins early this month, a move that was prompted by a trade they swung to acquire former Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. 

In three games with the 49ers, McCaffrey has 209 yards on 47 carries and 21 receptions for 185 yards while accounting for four touchdowns. One of the league's best all-purpose threats, McCaffrey provided a big upgrade for the offense. He's most effective in space, but has the power to pick up tough yards between the tackles. 

Last year's leading rusher, second-year RB Elijah Mitchell, suffered an injury on opening day that forced him to miss seven games. He returned two weeks ago and has 148 yards rushing in those two contests. Mitchell, a sixth-round pick from Louisiana, was one of the steals of the 2021 draft. He shows outstanding power and vision with an underrated burst into open space. 

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (25) carries the ball past Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52). Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (25) carries the ball past Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52). Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers use Pro Bowl WR Deebo Samuel as an extra runner, giving them another facet to their attack. After finishing second on the team with 365 yards rushing and 8 scores on the ground in 2021, Samuel has 202 yards rushing with two touchdowns this season. The 49ers don't just use him on end around and misdirection plays. Samuel is equally dangerous as an off-tackle runner out of the backfield. 

San Francisco has a big and physical offensive line that bullies opponents. They're a little inexperienced along the interior, but have perhaps the best tackle combination in the league. The 49ers have rushed for over 150 yards in five contests this season.

What to Expect 

Nov 21, 2021; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) in action against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 21, 2021; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) in action against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Christian McCaffrey had solid production against the Saints throughout his career in Carolina. He ran for 108 yards in the Panthers Week 3 win over New Orleans this season and has over 100 all-purpose yards in six of nine career meetings against the Saints. 

San Francisco's three-headed rushing tandem of McCaffrey, Mitchell, and Samuel keeps defenses off balance. Most of their success comes from a straightforward blocking scheme and behind LT Trent Williams or RT Mike McGlinchey.

The Saints can snuff this out by getting quick penetration with their defensive tackles, forcing the 49er backs to take a wider path to off-tackle lanes. Look for Demario Davis, one of the NFL's best at play recognition, to take some chances by firing through interior gaps into the backfield. 

Sep 25, 2022; New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) tackles Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 25, 2022; New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) tackles Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22). Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ends Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport are outstanding run defenders. Having either, or both of them back would help the defense match up with McGlinchey and Williams along the edge. If not, Granderson and Kpassagnon must win on early downs to force three-and-outs to avoid wearing down in the second half. 

New Orleans must be aggressive in attacking the San Francisco backfield rather than letting the play come to them. The 49ers have dominated teams with their balance throughout the year. The Saints will need to tackle well and win their battles at the line for a chance to pull off a crucial road win.

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