Three reasons the 49ers should beat the Saints by double-digits
You can’t say that the 49ers haven’t made it interesting down the stretch.
Despite being the NFL’s last undefeated team — 9-0 not too long ago — and despite being tied for the NFL’s best record heading into Week 14, almost everything is on the line for San Francisco when they play the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday.
The Niners (10-2) — who are somehow, someway, set to play in the NFC Playoff Wild Card Round as the No. 5 seed — can either re-ignite their bid for a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout those playoffs or effectively lock-in that extra playoff game.
Actually, the formula might be more simple than that: The 49ers are likely going to have to beat the Saints in New Orleans at some point this season — now or in the playoffs.
Wouldn’t it be easier to simply do it now?
Here are three reasons why I think the 49ers will do it now — and by a big margin.
1. The Gold Rush
Drew Brees is the least aggressive quarterback in the NFL, even more skittish than Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, and Joe Flacco per NFL Next Gen Stats. Almost no one throws the ball faster after the snap and no one pushes it down the field less. His longest throw of the year — 42.8 yards in the air — is the lowest mark in the NFL.
Brees is a Hall of Famer, but as he approaches his 41st birthday in January, he’s turned into Derek Carr with a better coach and better weapons.
Oh, and he’s moving like an old man, too. To say that Brees has any mobility these days might be deference to his greatness. Per FiveThirtyEight, Brees has a QBR (that’s ESPN’s proprietary quarterback rating system, out of 100) of 8.6 when he’s outside the pocket — the third-worst mark in the NFL (the two players below him on that list, Andy Dalton and Nick Foles, were both benched this season).
After five straight games of playing dynamic quarterbacks that can make something happen on the move — including arguably the most talented running quarterback of all time, Lamar Jackson, last week — Brees, a short-of-stature statue, represents a welcome change for the dominant 49ers’ pass rush.
The 49ers have 13 sacks over the last five games — this pass rush remains elite — but on Sunday, it’s not outrageous to think that they can accrue half of that five-week total in 60 minutes.
Not only is Dee Ford expected back in the fold — a boon to the team’s third-down pass rush, at the very least — but the Saints are also set to play backups at left guard, and possibly left tackle.
The 49ers’ pass-rushing sharks should smell blood in the water Sunday — Brees won’t be able to get to a second, much less a third, read all game.
And that, of course, bodes extremely well for San Francisco.
2. Limp opposition
The Saints’ offense might be considered top-10 by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, but so much of that offense revolves around two players, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
Thomas is poised to set the single-season record for reception yards, no small feat considering the kind of focus defenses have to throw his way.
Kamara, who missed some time mid-season, is perhaps the league’s most dynamic pass-catching running back, is Brees’ safety blanket.
Thomas and Kamara are no-question-about-it, bonafide elite players, but San Francisco matches up favorably with both.
With Thomas, Niners’ offensive coordinator Robert Saleh can go full Bill Belichick — don’t let the top player beat you — by bracketing him with double-teams all day. It’s not a risk to install a gameplan that dares Ted Ginn beat you.
With Kamara, who the Saints want to get the ball to in the open field, the same double-team concept is impossible, but San Francisco has to like the match-up between him and speedy middle linebacker Fred Warner, who is playing at an All-Pro level in his second season.
Warner doesn’t have to take on Kamara one-on-one in the open field — he just needs to slow him down. A perk of playing a running-back-happy passing offense is that — so long as you have a sound, speedy defense (which the 49ers unquestionably have) — the play remains in front of the defense and it can swarm to the ball.
In fact, the 49ers should be able to swarm to the ball on every play with Brees’ arm not being strong enough to challenge the 49ers downfield. New Orleans — at a more extreme level than the 49ers — will have to win with 60, 70 consecutive paper cuts.
But give this Niners’ defense that many chances, and they’ll surely create a turnover or two.
3. Kittle power
Following the 49ers’ loss to the Seahawks and their not-exactly-inspiring performance against the Cardinals the following week, I questioned where the 49ers’ power run game — a core part of their identity, alongside a dominant pass rush — had gone.
No one in the 49ers locker room had a concrete answer, but there was the near-ubiquitous suggestion was that the absence of tight end George Kittle, who missed both of the aforementioned contests and was hobbled in the Niners’ win over the Cardinals on Halloween, loomed large.
Of course not having an elite blocking tight end In the lineup would be a problem for the Niners, but the main cause of the team’s precipitous drop in run production? Kittle is good, but not that good, right?
And the 49ers’ impressive run game in the two contests since his return to action only confirms it.
The Niners are going to play in one of the few places in the NFL that actually provide a home-field advantage — the Super Dome. The power run game that defines their offense will be leaned on to counter-act a raucous crowd. But with Kittle in the lineup, they stand a chance of being able to move the ball on the ground, like they did last week against Baltimore.
The Saints will also be down their starting middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker for the contest — all the more reason to think that the Niners will be able to stake their offensive identity — and win big — on Sunday.
My predicted score