The New Orleans Saints welcome The San Francisco 49ers to The Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. The 49ers are coming off a humungous Monday Night drubbing of The Chicago Bears, while the Saints had one of their best defensive performances against The Raiders last week. Who will be the quarterback for the 49ers in this game, and what do we expect with two of the most adaptive and unconventional offenses in the NFL facing off?
49ers Offense vs. Saints Defense
Will it be Colin Kaepernick or Alex Smith under center for the 49ers on Sunday? Reports out of San Francisco seem to indicate that Kaepernick will start, but Jim Harbaugh refuses to name a starter, citing competitive advantage. This question may determine the game plan for Steve Spagnuolo’s Saints defense. The Bears decided to bring pressure and leave Kaepernick with a lot of 1 on 1 throws and easy reads.
The 49ers had planned to use play action to abuse a Bears defense looking to stop the run, and Kaepernick easily dissected their defense. The 49ers will face a 32nd ranked Saints defense that has played better lately, and Spagnuolo will not give Kaepernick the same easy opportunities that the Bears did. Spagnuolo is likely to mix in many zone blitzes and under trap coverage to give Kaepernick new looks. Frank Gore may take an increased share of the offense with Kaepernick under center.
Gore may not carry the ball more, but his leadership and knowledge in dictating protection and assisting in audibles will help Kaepernick develop. Gore is drooling thinking of the opportunity he has facing the last ranked rushing defense of the Saints. New Orleans linebackers Johnathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton will have fits trying to contain all the ground weapons the 49ers have at their disposal. Whether it be Gore, Kaepernick, or Kendall Hunter, the 49ers 1st overall rushing attack has many faces. Last week they highlighted some new option attacks with Kaepernick under center, including double wing, triple option, and pistol looks.
Kaepernick ran the pistol while playing quarterback for Nevada. Will Smith and Cameron Jordan have been successful pressuring the passer this year, and they face a big match against Anthony Davis and Joe Staley. The 49ers are 28th in the NFL in pass protection with 32 sacks. Kaepernick has shown amazing elusiveness, agility, and acceleration, and his ability to dance around pressure may be one of the factors prompting his promotion. Another factor may be the canon Kaepernick has in place of an arm. Kaepernick made fools of a Bears defense that was unprepared for a quarterback with an arm of Kaepernick’s quality. The 49ers will look to take advantage of safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.
Harper has been a liability in coverage, and Jenkins allowed 180 yards and 2 touchdowns to tight end Vernon Davis in the playoff match between the two teams last year. The Saints defense relies on the turnover, and creating turnovers will be important for a Saints team playing with momentum against an inexperienced quarterback at home. The 49ers will look to dominate a road game on the ground, while using Kaepernick’s big arm and mobility to work patterns downfield.
Saints Offense vs. 49ers Defense
The Saints offense is top 6 in points per game, passing offense and total offense. The 49er defense is top 2 in points per game, passing defense, and total defense. This is a match of opposing forces, the proverbial immovable object of the 49ers against the unstoppable force of Drew Brees and the Saints offense. New Orleans has said they intend to be a balanced offense against the 49ers, yet the match up does not lend to balance.
The 49ers are one of the best running defenses the league has ever seen over the last couple of years, and the Saints are working an injured but effective rushing attack, ranked 26th in the NFL. Darren Sproles will be healthy for this game, but Sproles works out of shotgun and passing downs mostly. New Orleans has no primary rusher, and Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas have evenly split carries and yards. In the playoffs last year, New Orleans abandoned the run early, resulting in a lot of work for Sproles out of passing sets.
The Saints offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, but the Saints average runs per game is of the lowest in the league. Where the Saints offensive line flourishes is in pass protection. Brees has attempted 401 passes this year, 6th in the league, yet has only 16 sacks, tied for 6th best. San Francisco has to generate pressure on the Saints outstanding offensive line if they are to contain Brees. Aldon Smith is coming off the best performance of his career, recording 5.5 sacks and looking completely unstoppable against a terrible Bears offensive line. Here Smith gets to try his multitude of pass rush moves against Pro-Bowler Jermon Bushrod, but Smith will see action attacking from multiple spots.
Look for the 49ers to attack the right side of the Saints line, right tackle Zach Strief is questionable with a groin injury, and Charles Brown is out, possibly leaving Bryce Harris to defend the right side. San Francisco looks for mismatches for Smith, and against a weakened right side of the Saints line, he may find success. Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, and Lance Moore have caught 57% of all Brees passes this year, but may have trouble finding space against a secondary that usually keeps both safeties deep, confident while rushing only four.
The 49ers secondary will look to limit the damage Brees can do in the air, while Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman contain the running game. The Saints will look to work many running backs, changing pace often in an attempt to confuse the 49ers rush defense. Brees will look to complete pass after pass underneath, taking what the 49ers give him.