ReFo: 49ers @ Saints, Week 11
A week after demoralizing the Dallas Cowboys at home, the New Orleans Saints hosted another NFC non-division rival in the San Francisco 49ers. While the Saints have re-emerged as one of the league’s best teams this season, the 49ers are looking to re-establish themselves near the top of the pack after coming into the season lurking atop everyone’s power rankings. Instead, the Saints held off the challenge, though it didn’t come without some potential controversy at the end of the game. A roughing the passer penalty proved a pivotal play as it kept the Saints alive on their game-tying field goal drive late in the fourth quarter and after forcing a three-and-out, they drove the field again to set up kicker Graham Hartley for the game winner as time expired.
New Orleans stays a game up in the loss column over second-place Carolina Panthers as they prepare for Monday Night Football tonight while the 49ers fall to 6-4, now three games behind the first place Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. They’re still right in the thick of the ever-changing NFC playoff landscape, however, as they head to Washington to play the Redskins in a Monday night game next week.
Here’s a look at the performances that shaped this NFC matchup.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Kap Still Trying to Put it all Together
After taking the league by storm in the second half of last season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still looking to recapture the all-around game that he displayed while leading San Francisco to the Super Bowl. He graded at +0.5 for the game to move to -6.6 on the season, again flashing the good while also showing the bad that has been prevalent in his second season as starter. Starting with the good, Kaepernick still has a cannon for an arm and impressive accuracy at times from the pocket. He picked up three first downs on out-routes to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, all throws right on point with top-notch velocity. The 49ers took advantage of his athleticism at the 10:58 mark of the third quarter as they faked the quarterback sweep with tight end Vernon Davis sneaking into the defensive backfield and Kaepernick hit him in the end zone with a well-placed corner route.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kaepernick also made a few bad decisions. His near pick-6 to cornerback Corey White was a potential game changer had White not fumbled on his way to the end zone. That was clearly his worst pass of the day, but the other issue that continues to creep up is his inability to work through progressions. When his first read is there, the big, accurate arm works well, but Kaepernick has shown he can consistently get off his primary read as evidenced by his being charged with both a sack and a hit in this game. On both plays, he tried to leave a fairly clean pocket, only to get boxed in by the Saints, with his throwaway at the 2:01 mark of the fourth quarter dangerously close to a safety. Kaepernick’s search for consistency continues, but as always, the tools are there for him to succeed.
Run Game Breakdowns
It takes much more than just a strong offensive line to run the ball successfully and the 49ers did not get a strong outing from their “peripheral” blockers. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald graded at -1.4 and -2.4 respectively while fullback Bruce Miller graded at -1.5. Davis’ down block was tossed aside by DE Akiem Hicks at the 2:48 mark of the third quarter to hold a promising run to no gain. McDonald had similar issues with outside linebacker Junior Galette, who worked his way to the outside to make a 1-yard tackle just a few plays later. Miller whiffed on his lead block with 11:31 to go in the third quarter as LB David Hawthorne easily sidestepped his cut attempt and got into the backfield for a six-yard loss. San Francisco was unable to establish their patented power running game because of difficulties at tight end and fullback.
Linebacker Duo Carries the Defense
Despite the 49ers’ up and down season, they still feature the best inside linebacker duo in football in Patrick Willis (+2.9) and Navarro Bowman (+1.0). Both players were active in the passing game, picking up two stops apiece while Willis got his hands on a corner route to TE Josh Hill. Bowman added two stops in the running game on his way to a +0.4 grade in that department while Willis had his most successful day of the season rushing the passer at +2.2 with all of his damage coming in the fourth quarter. He was also in the backfield on the controversial clothesline from OLB Ahmad Brooks as he knifed around LT Charles Brown for the pressure before recovering the fumble that was negated by the penalty. For Willis and Bowman, it was just another example of their collective impact in all three phases of the game.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
The Saints got a number of strong defensive performances, led by DEs Akiem Hicks (+2.9) and Cameron Jordan (+1.7) and MLB Curtis Lofton (+3.7). They showed particularly well against the run as Hicks tied for the team lead with four stops while Lofton’s +2.4 run stop grade is his best in a game since 2009. Not only did Hicks beat Davis for the aforementioned tackle, but he was quite impressive splitting the double team between RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis to make the tackle at the 0:24 mark of the third quarter. Lofton was impressive avoiding blockers and finding his way into the action despite the numerous moving parts in the 49ers running game. He quickly shed Boone’s pull block with 5:10 to go in the second and he later did the same to Vernon Davis’ second level block at the 14:15 mark of the fourth. As for Jordan, he was once again the Saints’ top pass rusher at +2.0, picking up a sack, three hits, two hurries, and a batted pass on 34 rushes.
Weak at LT
While the offensive line played well for the most part, LT Charles Brown was clearly the weakest link. He graded at -3.3 overall including -2.9 as a pass blocker. He surrendered two hits and four hurries on his 45 attempts to go with his -0.9 run block grade. He completely missed OLB Aldon Smith at the 4:46 mark of the third, surrendering the pressure in about 1.7 seconds and forcing QB Drew Brees out of the pocket to throw the ball away and take the big hit. Justin Smith got him as well with both pressures coming to his outside shoulder on fourth quarter rushes. For the season, Brown is the lone member of the Saints offensive line grading in the red and his -12.7 pass blocking grade ranks 70th out of the top 75 qualifiers at the position.
As always, the Saints feature a number of different skills sets on offense, particularly in the passing game, and they were all on display Sunday. WR Robert Meachem (+1.7) made the most of his two targets, picking up 78 yards, including 33 yards after the catch on a first quarter dig route. Fellow WR Marques Colston (+2.0) did his usual damage in the intermediate game catching 5-of-6 targets for 80 yards. His crossing route with 50 seconds left in the game was the key play that set up Hartley’s game winning field goal. Finally, TE Jimmy Graham (+2.3) chipped in with six catches for 41 yards and while the numbers don’t jump off the page, five of the six catches went for first downs including a 12-yard gain with 19 seconds left to turn Hartley’s makeable field goal into a 31-yard chip shot. Once again, the Saints proved to be one of the most difficult offenses to defend as Brees continued to disperse the ball in the passing game.
– After Saints starting CB Jabari Greer went down to injury after only nine snaps, CB Corey White filled in admirably playing 51 snaps and grading at +1.5.
– 49ers LT Joe Staley had a perfect day on 38 pass block attempts. He’s now surrendered only one hurry in his last four games.
– DE Tony Jerod-Eddie started his first game playing a career-high 54 snaps on his way to a -2.3 overall grade.
PFF Game Ball
In a game that didn’t have a lot of standout performances, 49ers LT Joe Staley did not allow any pressure while grading at +1.1 in the running game to finish at +4.1 overall for the day.
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