In an overall poor performance by the San Francisco 49ers last week against the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers defense was certainly not to blame, as it played quite well by allowing just 13 points and 193 net yards.
The 49ers should be more concerned about the state of the team’s offense (particularly in the red zone) after quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked eight times last week and running back Frank Gore only managed 49 yards rushing on 14 carries.
San Francisco has the league’s No. 2 ranked defense, allowing 292 yards per game, despite the prolonged absences of NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. And it looks like the team might be without All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis for a third straight game.
This week, the 49ers will have to battle the New Orleans Saints, who are much more potent on offense than the Rams, and if the 49ers want to get back into the playoff picture, they will have to find a way to slow down Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
49ERS HAVE TO FORCE TURNOVERS
Even though the 49ers forced two turnovers against the Rams, it clearly wasn’t enough as they still lost the game. And fortunately for San Francisco, the Rams were unable to score points, which kept the 49ers in the game. This Sunday, however, they’ll be going up against Brees’ second-ranked offense, which will almost certainly put up points in bunches if the 49ers let them.
If San Francisco wants to slow down the Saints’ offense, averaging 32 points per game at home, they will have to be, as Brees puts it, “opportunistic” on the defensive side of the ball. Brees also praised the physicality of the 49ers defense this week.
“They are very physical, very disciplined. What’s most impressive is, the fact that they’re still very opportunistic,” said Brees. “They are tops in the league in getting turnovers but they don’t take chances to do that. Most teams that are opportunistic, they play a lot of pressure, it’s a lot of situations where they put themselves at risk for big plays. So, they’ll be giving up a lot of big plays and also getting turnovers. The 49ers are the best in the league at limiting big plays.
“So, that’s a great combination, a great balance on defense when you’re not giving up big plays and you’re taking the ball away. So, that’s really impressive. Even more so because I know there are a lot of guys in there that are filling in place of guys like Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis, who’s been out for a couple of games, I know some guys in the secondary as well.”
Brees is correct in that the 49ers have only given up 16 pass plays of 25+ yards this season, which is impressive given the injuries that they have suffered on the defensive side of the ball.
Again this weekend, the key will be limiting big plays and generating turnovers for the 49ers, especially if the offense continues to be unable to put up points on the scoreboard. San Francisco is sixth in the league in interception rate (3.32 percent).
49ERS VS. GRAHAM
With Willis listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, the 49ers will likely have to turn to linebacker Chris Borland again, and this week, he’ll be tasked with slowing down the Saints' imposing tight end Jimmy Graham.
In last week’s game, Borland racked up a total of 18 tackles, which was the most by a single player so far this season. And 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio praised his play this week, saying, “He played good in the game. Obviously, like all of us, had a couple of plays he’d like to do over. Overall, he played a good football game.”
Still, covering and limiting Graham, who is averaging 11.3 yards per reception this season, is no easy task and Borland will likely play a key role in coverage against the Saints. Fangio also mentioned that the 49ers will put different guys on Graham throughout the game, depending on which coverage they line up in, so all the weight won’t fall on Borland’s shoulders. Moreover, it doesn’t matter who the 49ers put on Graham in terms of matching his size, because Graham, who is 6’7”, towers over most NFL defenders.
“He’s going to have that height advantage almost over everybody that will line up on him, just like he does each and every week in the NFL for the most part,” Fangio said. “It’s a tough matchup and makes it tougher that he’s a part of a very balanced offense so it’s hard to give special attention to one guy all the time. We just have to go out and play.”
Graham has scored touchdowns in his last two games and caught all seven of his targets in the Saints' win over Carolina last week. Brees has a 122.8 passer rating when targeting his talented tight end this season.