3TFO: 49ers @ Saints, Week 12
The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a dominating performance on Monday Night Football, in which they looked like the team to beat in the NFC. The win even sparked a pseudo-quarterback controversy as Colin Kaepernick was named the starter this week after his stellar play and with Alex Smith still feeling the after-effects of a concussion.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, they have to travel to face the New Orleans Saints in a hostile environment coming off a short week. The Saints, with wins in five of their past six games, have crawled back to .500 and have given themselves an outside chance at a playoff berth. This game will be critical as the Saints still have to face a number of strong teams in the weeks to come. And they should be extra-motivated after the 49ers ended their season in a spectacular divisional playoff game last January.
This should be a great intra-conference matchup, with playoff implications for both teams.
Battle in the Trenches
The last time these two teams met the 49ers pressured Brees on a third of his 67 drop-backs. They’ll need to have a similarly strong game rushing the passer against a Saints offense that, though it hasn’t quite played up to the level of years past, has gotten on track in recent weeks. We’ll be closely watching the left side of the offensive line where T Jermon Bushrod and LG Ben Grubbs will have the task of blocking one of the most the fearsome pass-rushing tandems in the league: the Smiths, Aldon and Justin. The Aldon-Bushrod matchup will be fascinating to watch, as the 49er has gotten many of his 43 QB disruptions via inside or bull rushes; those types of power moves have been successful against Bushrod. And that won’t bode well if he’s asked to block Justin one-on-one, though the end will likely see more of Grubbs on the interior. Look for the 49ers to frequently use stunts up front, something they run effectively and something the Saints have struggled to pick up this season, particularly on the left side of the line.
Even though the Smiths rush almost exclusively from the offensive left side, we’ll also be watching the other side of the line where Ahmad Brooks could potentially have a huge game against rookie Bryce Harris, assuming Zach Strief can’t play. Brooks doesn’t have the same sack numbers as Aldon, but has been just as effective rushing the passer, with only seven fewer total pressures on the year. Whether Harris or Srief plays, look for the Saints to make heavy use of reserve lineman Eric Olsen, who has seen the field frequently in recent weeks as an extra blocker in the run game.
49ers Run Game
Even with Kaepernick starting, the 49ers will surely stick to what’s been their bread and butter, the run game. In terms of pure rushing, San Francisco is our highest-graded team and is miles ahead of any other team in the league in run blocking. They’re averaging 5.5 yards per carry and having success regardless of where they run, though they are at their best when running through the left side A- and B-gaps behind Mike Iupati and Joe Staley.
Conversely, the Saints have been awful defending the run, having given up 5.1 yards per carry with 87 missed tackles. They’ve been particularly woeful on first down, allowing 6.1 YPC, though interestingly less than 3.7 through the left side A- and B-gaps. This is likely in large part due to the presence of Broderick Bunkley, who plays most of his snaps at DRT and (due to lack of pass rushing ability) often leaves the field after first down. On Sunday, expect Bunkley to be on the field more often, with the 49ers’ run-based offense and frequent use of heavy-personnel sets.
The New Orleans defense lines up most often in nickel (41% of the time) and dime packages (24% of their snaps); both numbers well above league average. But on Sunday, we’ll likely see the Saints in their base 4-3 most often, given the 49ers’ personnel and formation tendencies. San Francisco lines up roughly 60% of the time in heavy sets with two backs, two tight ends or both; in fact, they line up on 23% of their snaps with ‘22’ personnel. Against the Saints, however, they may want to spread the field with more three-wide sets — which they are running far less often than the league average — as the Saints are allowing 5 yards per carry in nickel and over 8 in dime. Against more predictable running formations, the New Orleans defense has been surprisingly strong; they’ve allowed just 2.0 YPC when opponents use ‘22’ personnel.
While Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham are the more heralded targets, Lance Moore has been an extremely valuable and underrated piece in the Saints’ passing game. Moore had a shaky start to the year, coinciding with the struggles of the entire offense. His five dropped passes through 10 games are just one fewer than he had in the past two seasons combined. However, he has come on in recent weeks, including a strong performance against the Raiders in Week 11, a game in which he caught only two passes, but both went for touchdowns. Perhaps the most telling stat about how effective he’s been is that Drew Brees has a QB rating of 112.6 when targeting him, the highest of any Saint receiver and seventh-best in the league.
The task of covering Moore will go to corners Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver. Rogers will be the one to watch as he’s San Francisco’s primary slot defender, and also the worst-graded of the three in coverage. And, although Moore only lines up in the slot on 32% of snaps, that’s where he’s been the most effective; his 2.59 Yards Per Route Run from the slot is the fourth-highest in the league. He’ll also see plenty of time against Culliver and Brown, though, as he lines up equally at LWR and RWR.
This won’t be one of the most talked about matchups on Sunday, but it will be one of the most important, especially on third downs, where Moore has proved to be tremendously reliable.