Game preview: a return to house of horrors

The 49ers have played games in New Orleans in four straight seasons, where they have a combined record of 1-4 including their Super Bowl loss to the Ravens. With their playoff hopes dwindling following last week's upset defeat to the Rams, San Francisco might need its best performance of the year to escape with a win over the Saints.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome hasn’t exactly been kind to the 49ers in recent seasons.

Sure, they won a game there against the Saints in 2012. But that was a New Orleans team without its head coach, Sean Payton, that finished 7-9. Payton was suspended for the season for his role in the “Bounty Gate” scandal.

Later that year, San Francisco lost the Super Bowl to the Ravens in the same building, coming excruciatingly short of their its first championship since 1994.

Last year, the 49ers thought they would escape the dome with a win over the Saints, but outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks’ hit on quarterback Drew Brees in the fourth quarter drew a personal foul flag. The strip-sack did not stand and home team went on to kick the game-tying field goal en route to the 23-20 win.

One win separated the 49ers from winning the division and being a wild card team as they entered the playoffs. Many point to that game in New Orleans costing San Francisco a first-round bye and a chance to host the conference title game. Instead, they wound up playing in Seattle for a chance at a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Jim Harbaugh’s first outing as head coach shouldn’t be forgotten either. San Francisco’s first preseason game in 2011 was played in New Orleans. The Saints blitzed, and blitzed a little more, blowing the doors off the road team 24-3. They sacked 49ers quarterbacks six times, in what seemed like an overly aggressive game plan for Week 1 of the preseason. But the 49ers got a little revenge in the Divisional Round of the playoffs that year.

The 2014 version of Harbaugh’s team has a different feel from those teams that reached the conference title game in each of the last three seasons.

“I feel like we’re having an average season. We’re 4-4, that’s the only stat that matters,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said this week.

Diminished is the stapled physical running identity, thanks in part to an offensive line that’s struggled with consistency all season. And with 20-year-old rookie center Marcus Martin having never played in a dome before - while also making his second-career NFL start - it would appear the Saints are going to do everything they can to get after Kaepernick, much like they did in that preseason game.

The 49ers are coming off a 13-10 loss to the Rams in which they gave up a season-high eight sacks - adding up to 14 in the last two weeks - giving them 27 on the season. That's the third-worst mark in the NFL.

”We have to play more physical, playing with that attitude, playing with that edge,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “I think that’s been missing the last few weeks. That’s something we definitely need to do a better job with and identify it. All we can do right now is, we can talk all this stuff to you guys, but we have to go out there and do it.”

Last year’s loss in New Orleans was one of Kaepernick’s toughest games of the season. He threw for 127 yards on 17 of 31 completions for a pair of TDs and an interception. If defensive back Corey White didn’t fumble his interception return a yard short of the goal line in the second quarter, the game could have had an entirely different feel.

Kaepernick’s passing numbers are up across the board this season thanks to a deeper receiving corps. But the 49ers have been the NFL’s worst red zone offense. Against the Saints’ second-ranked offense, averaging 32 points per game in the dome, that will have to be better.

Frank Gore, who is on pace to rush for less than 1,000 yards for just the third time in his 10-year career, has run for 1 touchdown after notching 9 in 2012. San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher has been on the wrong end of the team’s offensive identity crisis. But it didn’t prevent Gore from virtually guaranteeing a playoff birth earlier this week, despite the odds being stacked against it.

”I feel like whatever my coach calls, it’s a great chance that it’s going to work, no matter what,” Gore said when asked if the running game needs return as the emphasis of the offense. “Like I said earlier, we do have other great guys on this team.”

The prevailing thought among the 49ers is regaining traction offensively comes down to winning one-on-one matchups, and not just dialing up more running plays.

”It’s not as simple as (the play calling). I think we have to do a better job of executing what’s called,” Staley said. “Watching the film, the plays are there to be made. And we had a lot of opportunities to make plays and we just didn’t do for whatever reason it was. So we have to do a better job of executing. We have to handle what we can control. Speaking of the offensive line, we have to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. Better job of getting the run calls and making them work.

Everybody’s got to be on the same page at all times.”

Given the 49ers have been without a number of key players this year, like All-Pros NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis (who is likely to miss his third straight game), their struggles haven’t been completely unexpected.

The surprise, however, has been that the 49ers defense has maintained its high level of play despite missing those key players up front.

San Francisco has the league’s second-ranked defense, allowing 292 yards per game under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

[Related: 49ers D has a tough task against the Saints second-ranked offense]

The calling card of Fangio’s defense is being stout at every level, including the offensive front. Being able to get adequate pressure on the quarterback with just four players allows the 49ers to keep seven players in coverage - whereas blitzing leaves the field unbalanced and the defense exploitable.

“I don’t think they try to overly disguise anything,” Brees said in a conference call this week. “They just kind of play it as you see it. They got guys who play with a lot of confidence. They got pretty good ball skills on the back end. (Antoine) Bethea was a great addition. I played against him when he was with the Colts for a while. He’s a great football player. Perrish Cox is having a great year, with all the turnovers that he’s created, plus pass breakups and everything else. They all play with a lot of confidence, they all play well together and they complement what’s happening up front as well. That front seven is pretty formidable, as well. So, all in all, it’s an extremely talented defense.”

The Saints haven’t lost in the Superdome since Week 17 of that disastrous 2012 season, running their current home winning streak to 11.

Sunday’s tilt isn’t necessarily a “must-win” for the 49ers. But it’s close. To get back to the playoffs for the fourth straight year, they will likely need to go 6-2 over their remaining schedule, which includes two games with Seattle and one with the Cardinals, who lead the division with the NFL’s best record of 7-1.

49ers add LB Thomas to the roster

With outside linebacker Dan Skuta dealing with an ankle injury, San Francisco used its open roster spot Saturday to elevate Chase Thomas from the practice squad.

Thomas, a Stanford alum, had a good showing in the preseason. He played 124 snaps and notched five quarterbacks hurries and 9 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.

Saturday’s move makes it unlikely the 49ers add nose tackle Glenn Dorsey to the roster in time for Sunday’s game. Dorsey resumed practicing leading up to the Rams game after tearing a biceps tendon in training camp. But given the Saints propensity to keep at least three receivers on the field, San Francisco won’t have the need for an extra nose tackle.

Rookie Aaron Lynch is likely to see his role increase to base situations opposite Brooks if Skuta is made inactive. Lynch has primarily been used as a pass rusher in nickel sets. The fifth-round pick has registered sacks in back-to-back games and will hope to add to that against Brees Sunday.

Next story:

49ers defense has a tough task against the Saints

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