Pick 6: Six Things to Watch in the Saints-49ers Showdown

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers face each other on Sunday in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in a battle of two of the NFL’s top teams. Each squad enters the game with 10-2 records, with both eyeing the top seed in the NFC playoff race. Both teams have been consistently dominant this season and are littered with Pro Bowl quality players on each side of the ball. Here are some of the most important things to watch for in this showdown of Super Bowl favorites.

1. New Orleans protection of Drew Brees?

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The Saints have allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked just 20 times this season. Eleven of those would come in two games against the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. New Orleans has stifled some of the best pass rushers in the league this season, but will be tested again on Sunday.

San Francisco has sacked opposing quarterbacks 45 times this season. Leading the onslaught has been defensive ends Arik Armstead with 10 sacks and Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Bosa with 8. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has added 6.5 sacks of his own for a deep 49er defensive line that also includes former 1st round draft choice Solomon Thomas and Pro Bowler Dee Ford at defensive end.

New Orleans right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is having an All-Pro campaign and has caused opposing pass rushers to disappear. Rookie center Erik McCoy has been outstanding inside, while right guard Larry Warford is a solid veteran presence. New Orleans has played the last two contests with reserves on the left side of their offensive line because of injuries. Left guard Nick Easton has played well in relief of Andrus Peat (broken arm), and Patrick Omameh had a fine game filling in for Terron Armstead (ankle) against Atlanta. Armstead is questionable to play on Sunday, but even if he goes could have limited mobility.

Expect the Saints to use a passing attack predicated on getting the ball out quickly to help offset the San Francisco pass rush. The New Orleans offensive line must protect Drew Brees well enough for him to go through his reads and allow pass patterns to develop.

2. Usage of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray

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Oct 27, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Latavius Murray (28) runs against the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints have averaged 107 yards on the ground in 2019, ranking 17th in the league. New Orleans running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray have averaged 4.6 yards per carry, combining for 1,051 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns.

The 49ers defense has been inconsistent against the run, ranking 22nd in the NFL while giving up 122 yards per contest and five yards per carry. Opponents have averaged over 140 yards rushing against San Francisco over the last six weeks, since losing linebacker Kwon Alexander to injury for the year. Linebacker Fred Warner is having a standout season, but Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair

Kamara will be a big part of the game plan, as always. New Orleans will need to remain patient with the running game throughout this contest to stay balanced and help offset San Francisco’s fierce pass rush. Murray’s usage has decreased significantly in the second half of games since Kamara’s return to the lineup from injury. Both backs will need to be productive for the New Orleans offense to control this game.

3. Return of Alvin Kamara “The Playmaker”

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Nov 24, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs against the Carolina Panthers in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 34-31. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara, who may not be fully recovered from an ankle injury that caused him to miss two games earlier this month, still plays a huge role in this offense. He’s averaged nearly 20 touches per game since his return to the lineup but hasn’t been the gamebreaker he’s been over most of his three seasons in the league.

Both New Orleans backs have proven capable of shouldering the team’s rushing load, but Kamara is one of the league’s most dynamic offensive players. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas faces a big matchup with San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman and the 49ers secondary, but Kamara will also see heavy attention from the defense. His ability to produce will open things up for Thomas and the other New Orleans weapons and be a big key for the offense down the stretch of the year.

4. Saints Linebackers

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Nov 17, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans linebacker Demario Davis is as good as there is in the league. He leads his team with 88 tackles, has 8 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and an interception. Davis has been a disruptive force all year, including during last week’s win over Atlanta. The Saints finished the game against the Falcons with two backups in the lineup surrounding Davis though. Kiko Alonso (thigh) and A.J. Klein (knee) will both miss this game with injuries suffered in the Atlanta game. New Orleans signed veteran Manti Te’o this week and finished last Thursday’s contest with Craig Robertson and Stephone Anthony. All three add solid veteran experience and know the Saints’ defensive scheme, but are limited as every down defenders.

Davis will be one of the major keys to the Saints defensive success, but Robertson, Te’o, and Anthony will be tested early and often by the San Francisco backs and tight ends. They must maintain discipline in their assignments to avoid being a liability for this defense on Sunday.

5. Stopping the San Francisco running game

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Oct 13, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida (22) carries the ball during the second half against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers have a three-headed running attack that has produced 148 yards per game on the ground, ranking second in the league. Matt Breida is the ‘Niners top rusher with 542 yards. He has been sidelined with an ankle injury but is expected back in the lineup on Sunday. Raheem Mostert has contributed 539 yards, including a career high 146 yards in relief of Breida last week against Baltimore. Tevin Coleman is the most versatile of their backs, adding 20 receptions to his 454 yards on the ground.

The Saints counter with the NFL’s third best rush defense, allowing a mere 89 yards per contest. New Orleans has not allowed a 100-Yd rusher in their last 38 games. With their linebacking unit being shorthanded, it will be even more imperative that the Saints defensive line controls the line of scrimmage. Doing so will put the onus for offensive success in the hands of a 49er passing game unaccustomed to being one-dimensional.

6. Pressuring Jimmy Garoppolo

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Dec 1, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) drops back to pass during the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco quarterback has some underrated receiving weapons in Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle along with quick wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel. A New Orleans secondary that has shown itself capable of controlling some league’s better receivers will face some key battle on the back end.

The success of the Saints pass defense starts with the pressure they are able to generate with their deep defensive front. New Orleans has 40 sacks on the year, 33 from their defensive line, led by 13.5 from end Cameron Jordan. Garoppolo has decent mobility but has been sacked 24 times.  The Saints have disrupted most opponents with constant pressure and have the talant to rush Garoppolo and keep the 49er attack off rythm. 

Much of the storyline surrounding this huge showdown for the NFC lead is the San Francisco defense versus the New Orleans offense. The 49ers have very capable offensive weapons though, while the Saints possess perhaps the most underrated defense in the league. Pressuring Garoppolo into mistakes could ultimately be the difference in what many think will be a tight game between two star-studded squads. 

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