The 49ers face perhaps their toughest NFC opponent of the year Sunday in New Orleans. The Saints are as well-rounded as San Francisco, but the two clubs are distinctly different.
It’s been awhile since the 49ers and Saints met in a meaningful game, but the path these teams are on means Sunday could determine where the NFC championship game is played.
To get some insight on New Orleans’ 10-2 squad, we chatted with John Sigler of the Saints Wire.
Niners Wire: Drew Brees doesn’t seem as dominant this season as he’s been in the past. Is that injury related, age related, or do you think it’s a shifting offensive philosophy?
John Sigler: Brees is very much fitting the profile of an aging quarterback. He doesn’t have the same arm strength to hit receivers in stride deep downfield or rifle the ball into a tight, closing window. But he’s still very dangerous thanks to his high understanding of the game and otherworldly accuracy, we just haven’t seen the sky-high passing numbers we’re used to. Between his five-game stint on the sidelines with a thumb injury and underwhelming personnel in the receiving corps (more on that in a moment), the Saints offense has kind of struggling to run up the score.
NW: There seems to be a pretty big drop off in pass catchers for the Saints after Michael Thomas. Is limiting Thomas the key to shutting down the Saints’ passing attack?
JS: The Saints have three weapons they can throw to with consistency, and one of them dropped three touchdown passes the last two weeks. Thomas is the superstar of the group and has proven to be unguardable this year; he’ll be a huge test for Richard Sherman and company. After him, though, the Saints have had to rely on Alvin Kamara as a security blanket underneath coverage, while newcomer Jared Cook has been frustrating with poor hands throughout the season. For whatever reasons the Saints have not targeted Kamara further downfield this year as seen in the past, making Cook their big-play threat opposite Thomas. And it feels like he’s dropped as many passes as he’s caught. Shut down Thomas and the Saints will struggle to move the ball.
NW: The Saints have a super talented defense that’s really sound in all areas, but who sticks out to you as the best player on that unit?
JS: This is a tricky question because the best player is defensive end Cameron Jordan, but the most impactful player is cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Jordan is in the race to lead the NFL in sacks (he just bagged four a week), but nobody helps the defense play better than Lattimore. When he’s at his best, Lattimore can erase the league’s best receivers and limit opposing passing attacks to one side of the field — allowing his teammates to limit their attention and play a little more recklessly. Don’t sleep on linebacker Demario Davis, though. He’s done a tremendous job filling in against the run while carrying tight ends and even slot receivers downfield in coverage.
NW: New Orleans is arguably the best team in the NFC, but they have a loss to the Falcons and a narrow win over the Panthers in the last few weeks. What happened in those games?
JS: It’s just the danger of playing familiar opponents, in my opinion. The Falcons and Panthers are used to the Saints’ tendencies and know their coaching staff well, giving them an edge over the Saints’ normally-creative personnel packages. The NFC South has been one of the NFL’s most contentious divisions since its founding, with just two teams winning multiple consecutive division titles (the Panthers from 2013 to 2015, and the Saints from 2017 to 2019). It’s telling that the only team with a new head coach at the time (good luck, Ron Rivera, and please go far away to the AFC) struggled against the Saints in both outings: Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That past experience is valuable.
NW: Who wins and how does this game play out?
JS: I think this is going to be a close game thanks to both teams fielding strong, physical defenses. The Saints have one of the NFL’s most underrated run defenses and they should be able to force Jimmy Garoppolo to throw more than he’d like. I question whether New Orleans has the horsepower to match the 49ers in points if it becomes a boat race, though. I’ll call it as Saints 20, 49ers 17.
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