Radar Week 11: 49ers @ Saints

San Francisco is coming off a tough loss at home to the Carolina Panthers that ended their impressive five-game winning streak. They will have to bounce back on the road against one of the conference's best teams when they head to New Orleans to take on the Saints Sunday. With so much on the line, we break down where the 49ers stand in our weekly Radar series.

Statistics Through Week 10

Offense (rank):

Points per game: 25.2 (#10) previous week: 27.2 (#5)

Yards per game: 321.6 (#22) previous week: 342.9 (#16)

Passing yards (per game): 173.9 (#32) previous week: 189.9 (#32)

Rushing yards (per game): 147.7 (#4) previous week: 153 (#1)

3rd-down conversion rate: 37.5 percent (#18) previous week: 37.76 percent (#16)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 60.71 percent (#9) previous week: 62.96 percent (#7)

Defense (rank):

Points per game: 17.2 (#4) previous week: 18.1 (#4)

Yards per game: 316.8 (#6) previous week: 325.1 (#4)

Passing yards (per game): 211.4 (#9) previous week: 220.5 (#8)

Rushing yards (per game): 105.3 (#12) previous week: 104.6 (#12)

3rd-down conversion rate: 34.11 (#7) previous week: 33.04 percent (#3)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 63.64 percent (#28) previous week: 63.64 percent (#28)

Misc.:

Turnover margin: +4 (18 takeaways, 14 giveaways) previous week: >+4 (16, 12)

Penalties per game: 6.6 (#19) previous week: 6.9 (#19)

Penalty yards per game: 54.8 (#14) previous week: 58.5 (#18)

NFC West Standings (record, division)

Seattle Seahawks (9-1, 3-0)

San Francisco 49ers (6-3, 2-1)

Arizona Cardinals (5-4, 2-1)

St. Louis Rams (4-6, 1-2)

What It Means

The 49ers do not have much time to lick their wounds after Sunday's loss to the Panthers. They have suffered two of their three losses at Candlestick, leaving many to wonder if this team has the offensive firepower to make a third consecutive run deep into the playoffs.

Sunday's game was winnable for San Francisco, but they were unable to capitalize on mistakes or overcome the loss of two tight ends that had such a measurable impact on the game.

All three division opponents won last week, including Seattle, giving the Seahawks essentially a three-game lead on the 49ers (tie-breaker included) with seven games remaining, including one at Candlestick Dec. 8.

Now, San Francisco is the No. 6 seed in the playoff standings and are just one game up on three NFC teams that are 5-4: Arizona, Green Bay and Chicago. The 49ers would win tiebreakers against Green Bay and Arizona, with another game against the Cardinals left to play on the road in Week 17.

The team released Kyle Williams and Perrish Cox this week and has a roster opening that will likely remain open until Saturday at 1 p.m. They will likely wait to see if the health of Vernon Davis checks out after suffering his concussion in the second quarter of Sunday's game. If Davis can't go, there's a good chance practice squad tight end Derek Carrier would be elevated to the 53-man roster. Jim Harbaugh ruled out Michael Crabtree making his season debut when he addressed the media Friday.

Strengths

The team's defense remains strong and played well enough to win Sunday. After the game, Patrick Willis said his goal each week is to allow 17 points or less. To this point, the 49ers are averaging 17.2 allowed to their opponents, right in line with Willis' stated goal.

Per usual, the running game remains the team's strong suit on offense. But the team went away from it in the second half of the loss to the Panthers. Frank Gore had 61 yards on 12 carries (5.1-yard average) but finished the game with just 16 carries for 82 yards.

"I think win, lose or draw, you're going to look at every play in the game ad decide was that a good play for this game for us relative to the opponent? Some yes, some no, some maybe," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week after being asked if he second guessed his play calling after the fact.

San Francisco fell from having the league's top rushing attack to No. 4 this week after rushing the ball just 24 times totaling 105 yards (on average, they call nearly 33 running plays per game). The Saints are allowing a league-worst 5.0 yards per carry to opponents, which could bode well for the 49ers if they hope to play keep away with Drew Brees and the Saints offense.

Areas to Improve

The offense converted on just 2 of 15 third downs Sunday in part because of their poor play on early downs. Colin Kaepernick has received plenty of blame, but the 49ers insist the issues with the offense are symptomatic of more than just their quarterback play.

"Negative plays in that game," Roman said. "It was very uncharacteristic, but it was a very unique set of circumstances throughout the game that led us to have some negative plays and we've got to be better in the third and short situations. We've been really, really good at it this year up until last week and we need to be better there. But, any time you're in 3rd and 10-plus, it's not where you want to be."

The unique circumstances Roman referred to included the loss of two tight ends to injury in the first half. Garrett Celek left the game in the first quarter with a hamstring strain and Vernon Davis left with a concussion, leaving rookie Vance McDonald as the team's only healthy tight end. Coming in, the 49ers had run more than 40 percent of their offensive sets with two tight ends. Before Davis' injury, 45 percent of their plays included two tight ends, taking way a large part of their offensive game plan coming into the game.

With the status of Davis and Celek in question for Sunday, there's a good chance the offense works with more one-tight end formations with either two receivers, a fullback and a running back – or three receivers and a tail back. When asked about expanding the team's personnel packages, Roman said it was something he was hoping to accomplish this week.

"I think when we had two tight ends go down the other day, based on that game plan, that was not ideal," Roman said. "But, you've got to deal with it. The things that we did in the game we practiced. I think we're always, as we keep getting receivers back, we'll probably be a little more of a two, three wide receiver unit. But bottom line…you've to find a way to execute and get it done. And these are things we plan for, but that particular game it was a very high percentage of tight end oriented things."

Wideout Jon Baldwin was made active for the game Sunday over special teams standout Kassim Osgood, but only played three offensive snaps. Look for Baldwin's role to expand this week if the team does use more three-receiver sets. He said he received more than his usual workload this week in practice.

Looking Ahead

At some point, the 49ers figure to get Crabtree back to compliment the league's lowest-rated passing attack. But until then, they will have to find ways to get the ball downfield to Davis and Anquan Boldin, while Manningham and Baldwin continue to get worked into the mix.

Kaepernick will be making just his 19th career start Sunday. Perhaps his biggest problem - aside from his numbers that construct all the talking points - were the expectations coming into the seaosn. Kaepernick played so well so early that he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the usual growing pains so many quarterbacks go through. Defenses have adjusted and it's time for him to take the next step in his development and adjust back.

For a team like San Francisco that's coming off two-straight deep runs in the playoffs in Harbaugh's first two seasons at the helm, the standard has been set. And with the division appearing out of reach along with the possibility of having to go through Seattle to get back to the Super Bowl, it's not unreasonable to start hovering over the panic button.

But keep in mind, the most important thing for the 49ers is making the playoffs. Last year's Baltimore Ravens backed into the postseason losing four of their five games. The New York Giants won Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011 as a 10-6 Wild Card team and 9-7 division winner. Strange things happen in the NFL. San Francisco's roster remains one of the most talented in the NFL.

The team's remaining schedule has a winning percentage of .477 (31-34) with the Saints and Seahawks accounting for 16 of those wins.

There is still plenty of football left.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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