The last time the New Orleans Saints played the San Francisco 49ers, Alex Smith was their rookie dynamo at quarterback. On Nov 25 last year, the 49ers defense held the Saints to just 290 yards, returned two interceptions for touchdowns and won the game, 31-21. The Saints will be hosting the 49ers this Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, and look forward to getting a bit of their own back.
That November game was the second time in 2012 the Saints had to eat crow fed to them by the 49ers. In the January NFC divisional playoff game, Smith threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis to win 36-32 at Candlestick Park with nine seconds to go in the game.
This year, Smith is in Kansas City, and Colin Kaepernick is running San Francisco’s offense. Last year, New Orleans had a dismal defense. This year, they have Rob Ryan’s exotic, aggressive and ever-changing defense. Sean Payton is back in the head coaching saddle, and the Saints are in first place in the NFC South, while the 49ers are in second place in the NFC West. Things, to say the least, have changed.
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The Saints are coming off a record-setting game against the Dallas Cowboys last week. However, Payton and Ryan are not the sort of coaches that dwell very long on previous glories. It was a win, and now they have to go out and do it again.
The 49ers are not riding as high as the Saints going into Week 11. They lost 10-9 to the Carolina Panthers last week. The Panthers defense held Kaepernick to just 91 passing yards, no touchdowns, grabbed an interception, and sacked him six times for a loss of 45 yards. Although the score does not seem like much, Carolina put a smackdown on Kaepernick that the young quarterback may not soon forget. Kaep is one of the highly physical and mobile quarterbacks in the league, but he only got four rushes for 16 yards last week. Shut down is a kind way to put it.
Kaep also has trouble holding on to the ball. Last season, he fumbled nine and lost two. This year, he has fumbled five and lost four. If Kaep cannot improve his ball control against the Saints he is going to have a very long very miserable day. His team is keeping up however, at a +4 turnover ratio, but the Saints are at +5, and Brees has not lost either of his two fumbles this season.
While Brees has seven interceptions this season and Kaep only six, that stat is a bit deceiving. Brees has a much higher pass ratio, completing 247 of 363 passes, where Kaep has thrown only 220 times for 124 completions. Of those completions, Brees has scored 25 passing touchdowns, while Kaepernick has only nine. If we bring this down to simple quarterbacking numbers, the 49ers need not bother to show up. Of course, every team is much more than its quarterback.
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San Francisco manhandled the New Orleans twice last year, and they are just as physical a team this year. The defense is ranked 6th in the league in yards allowed (316.8) and 4th in points allowed and scoring (17.2/29.4).
The 49ers also have wide receiver Anquan Boldin to turn to. Boldin has 41 catches for 574 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 14 yards per reception. However, he was also kept rather quiet last week by the Panthers, catching only three passes for 23 yards. Tight end Vernon Davis caught only one pass last week and gained only 2 yards on it.
The 49ers Achilles heel appears to be facing a tough, high-pressure defense, and they will find that in New Orleans on Sunday. With Gore, Davis, Boldin and Kaepernick shut down, the 49ers do not win. Like Vick before him, however, flushing Kaep from the pocket is a mistake the Saints cannot make. He must be contained, surrounded and the pocket sealed in order to keep him from breaking off a run.
On the Saints’ side, we have a trooper at tight end in Jimmy Graham. He has been playing on a painful plantar fascia in his foot as well as a dinged up elbow. His return to full action has been gradual but any chance Brees has to get him the ball, he does, and Graham usually does marvelous things with it.
Graham has numbers like a wide receiver and leads the league tight ends in receptions at 54 and yards at 805. He’s also the top scoring tight end with 10 of Brees’ 25 touchdowns secured in his hands. Graham stands at 6′ 7″ and tips the scales at 265 pounds.
Long of limb and fleet of foot (even the sore one), Graham is a coverage nightmare for any defense. The 49ers will have to double or even triple cover him, which will leave Brees free to target Kenny Stills, Brandon Wilson, Robert Meachem, Marques Colston or Lance Moore. It also frees up the running game that was so productive against the Cowboys with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. If it comes down to My Weapons vs. Your Weapons, Brees wins hands down. He simply has far too many options for the 49ers defense to cover them all and keep them covered.
So in this rematch, we have the 49ers improved defense against the Saints improved offense and defense. It does not look like San Francisco will be able to run roughshod over New Orleans on Sunday. In fact, it looks like the Saints may the ones doing most of the rough running. Based on recent records and this season’s performances, we have to give this game to the Saints by a significant margin.
By Brandi Tasby