Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Saints

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's battle of erstwhile NFC contenders between the 49ers and New Orleans Saints at Monster Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, injury impact, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before what shapes up as a crucial contest for both teams.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:15 p.m. Pacific
SITE: Monster Park in San Francisco
RECORDS: 49ers 2-4, Saints 2-4
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson

SERIES HISTORY: 69th meeting. The 49ers lead the series, 45-21-2, despite losing the last three matchups with the Saints -- whom they played twice a year from 1970-2001 as members of the NFC West. The Saints have scored at least 30 points in winning the last three games with the 49ers, all in the Superdome. They prevailed, 34-10, in their last meeting on Dec. 3, 2006.

KEYS TO THE GAME: RB Reggie Bush is averaging 25.7 touches in the three games since Deuce McAlister was lost for the season. He's holding up to the increased workload, and Bush's growth as a runner is helping buy more time for QB Drew Brees. With five touchdowns against 10 interceptions this season, Brees would be wise to be careful against CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris. ... All signs point to QB Alex Smith starting as the 49ers attempt to snap their four-game losing streak. The key is Smith proving he is healthy and completing a few passes downfield to give RB Frank Gore a chance to find some running lanes. With the Saints stepping up their pass rush the past two games, the 49ers can ill afford to fall behind and expose Smith to a beating in his first game back.

FAST FACTS: The Saints have five pass plays of at least 20 yards the past two games after having five through their first four games. ... The 49ers are 8-1 (.889) when Gore has at least 20 carries.

BY THE NUMBERS: 49 -- Consecutive games in which the 49ers have failed to produce a 300-yard passer. 5 -- Pass plays of 20 yards or more by the Saints in their last two games, both of which they won. They had five in their first four games this season -- all losses.

"My job is not motivated by the fear of failure. My job is motivated by trying to get to success. I look at the last two years the same way. The responsibility is on my shoulders to win games, no question." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on whether he's comfortable accepting the blame for the team's 2-4 start.
"I think when we watch the tape and we make the corrections, the players will understand that there's still improvement on the field and there are still areas that we can improve on. Nonetheless, I felt like we played with real good energy and I thought we played physical. That was encouraging." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on his team's 22-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

49ERS GAME PLAN: It appeared that offensive coordinator Jim Hostler got the green light from head coach Mike Nolan to open up the offense and take some chances. The 49ers have appeared like a team that was playing not to lose for most of the season. Hostler used more personnel groups and formations last week against the New York Giants to try to utilize the team's talent. Receiver Ashley Lelie, who is the 49ers' only vertical threat, was used more in the passing game. His first reception went for 47 yards, the 49ers' longest gain this season. Running back Frank Gore ran more often out of one-back sets. He gained a season-high 88 yards on 14 carries. The 49ers approach might be contingent on which player starts at quarterback. Trent Dilfer made the kind of mistakes last week that the 49ers don't expect to see out of a veteran quarterback. Alex Smith is expected to return to the starting lineup, which should present Hostler with more options. With Smith, the 49ers are more apt to use shotgun formations and plays in which the quarterback is on the move. The 49ers strive for a 50-50 split in the run and pass games. A healthy Gore will allow the 49ers a chance to establish an effective run game. Defensively, the 49ers have to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. Their outside pass rush has been a major disappointment, as free-agent pickup Tully Banta-Cain has not supplied the 49ers with much of a pass rush. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has to dial up more blitzes because the coverage on the back end has held up pretty well.

SAINTS GAME PLAN: The Saints, who have played much better on offense the last two weeks, will try to play keep-away against San Francisco. Opponents of the 49ers have averaged 33:51 in time of possession to just 26:08 for the Niners, which could be a key to a road win for the Saints. Of course, the Saints will have to run the ball effectively and make key third-down conversions to make that happen. Defensively, the Saints must stop 49ers running back Frank Gore from breaking loose early because of the problems they have had at quarterback. The Niners have also given up 24 sacks in just six games, which is good news for a Saints defense that has turned up the heat and recorded eight sacks in the last two games.

--- 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who leads the 49ers with 82 tackles in six games and whose best attribute is his speed, vs. Saints RB Reggie Bush, who ran all over the 49ers last season in his breakout NFL game. Bush had a monster game against the 49ers last year in the Superdome. He ran for three scores and caught another, with his final TD coming with 11:18 remaining in the contest, and had 168 total yards. If he gets going once again, it could be a long afternoon for the Niners.
--- 49ers ROLB Tully Banta-Cain, who has recorded 1.5 sacks this season and failed to put up consistent pressure, vs. Saints LT Jammal Brown, a solid player who should not have much problems handling the 49ers in one-on-one situations.
--- 49ers SS Michael Lewis, who will handle a lot of the coverage chores on the tight end, vs. Saints TE Eric Johnson, who has 28 receptions for 194 yards and a TD in his first year after leaving the 49ers as a free agent.
--- 49ers RT Joe Staley, who struggled mightily against the Giants' Michael Strahan last week, vs. Saints LDE Charles Grant, a sixth-year player who has two sacks this season.
--- 49ers WR Ashley Lelie, likely to get his first start with the team, vs. Saints LCB Mike McKenzie, who had a strong game against the 49ers last season with some nice plays on deep passes.
--- Saints front seven vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. The Saints have been good against the run since giving up 164 yards to the Indianapolis Colts in the season opener. They have not allowed an opposing team to rush for 100 since then, so continuing that against a quality back like Gore would be huge.
--- Saints special teams vs. 49ers KR Michael Lewis. The Saints have done an adequate job covering punts this season, giving up just more than 10 yards a return, but they will have to be at their best this week against their former teammate. Lewis' contract was terminated in June, so he'll be trying to prove that they were wrong in letting him go.


QB Alex Smith returned to full practice on Wednesday and is expected to start for the first time since sustaining a separated right shoulder on Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. Smith has missed the previous two games. He suited up as the No. 3 quarterback last week against the Giants. Gore is expected to play Sunday, though he missed practice time early in the week with a right ankle sprain and is listed as questionable. If he is unable to play, Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson would split the workload. WR Darrell Jackson might not play against the Saints with a quadriceps strain he sustained in Sunday's game against the Giants. Jackson did not appear on the injury report after the game. Nolan said he did not know Jackson was injured until Tuesday. LT Jonas Jennings is not expected to play Sunday with an ankle sprain. Jennings was injured in the second quarter against the Giants, but after the game said the injury was nothing that would keep him out of action. However, the ankle worsened, casting doubt on his availability for Sunday's game. TE Vernon Davis returned to action last week after missing two games with a right MCL sprain. He has been removed from the injury report, though he still plays with a brace on his knee. S Keith Lewis (hamstring) is likely to be held out of action again this week after experiencing the strain on Oct. 7. Lewis is one of the 49ers' core special-teams players.
Faine has a left pectoral muscle injury and may not be able to play in Sunday's game. Goodwin, who played extensively in the exhibition season when Faine was out with a strained calf, will start if Faine can't go.



--- QB Alex Smith was officially named the starting quarterback for the 49ers against the Saints. Smith has not played since sustaining a separated throwing shoulder Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. He took every first-team practice snap Wednesday and Thursday.
--- RB Frank Gore did not practice Wednesday and practiced a limited amount on Thursday. His availability might not be known until game day. But Gore said his love of the game will enable him to play Sunday against the Saints. Gore sustained a right ankle sprain in the second quarter of the game last week against the Giants. He stayed in the game with the injury, rushing for a season-high 88 yards.
--- WR Darrell Jackson is doubtful for Sunday's game with a quadriceps strain. Jackson is tied for the team lead with 216 receiving yards. He has 18 receptions and one touchdown.
--- WR Ashley Lelie is likely to get his first start with the 49ers, as he is scheduled to take over for Jackson. Lelie played sparingly in the 49ers' first five games. He saw his most significant action last week against the Giants, catching two passes for 52 yards.
--- LT Jonas Jennings is doubtful with an ankle sprain. Jennings has played in just 21 of the 42 games since he signed a seven-year, $36 million contract with the 49ers in 2005. Last week, the 49ers began having Adam Snyder split time with Jennings at left tackle.

--- C Jeff Faine missed a second straight practice Thursday with a left pectoral muscle injury and will likely be a game-time decision, coach Sean Payton said, for Sunday's game.
--- C/G Jonathan Goodwin, a six-year veteran, will start in place of Faine if Faine is sidelined for Sunday's game.
--- LG Jamar Nesbit, who has played some center in his nine-year NFL career, would likely be the backup center to Goodwin if Faine is inactive Sunday.
--- DT Brian Young, who did not practice Wednesday, worked on a limited basis Thursday. He is making progress after having his left knee drained Monday and Wednesday and said he expects to play against the 49ers.
--- RCB Jason David practiced this week and is full go for the 49ers after missing three games with a fractured left forearm. He'll wear a soft cast to protect the arm, which was surgically repaired on Sept. 25.
--- RCB Jason Craft has started the last three games in place of David, but there has been no indication who will start Sunday.



The 49ers have reached a critical juncture in their season, but at least quarterback Alex Smith will return to the starting lineup.

The 49ers have lost four consecutive games entering Sunday's contest. The team's fans are frustrated with the lack of progress the offense has made this season.

After Sunday's game, the 49ers hit the road for four of their next five games.

"Every game is urgent," coach Mike Nolan said. "Our focus right now is on this game. We'll take them one at a time. We'll get this one under our belt and then we'll move on to Atlanta."
The 49ers are 2-4, but they are still in the NFC West race with a 2-1 record in division play. The 49ers play the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, two teams ahead of them in the standings, during the upcoming cluster of road games.

"I certainly don't discuss with the team that four of the next five games are on the road," Nolan said. "Had we been sitting here with a 6-0 record, that would be OK to talk to them about. But we can't get ahead of ourselves. We've got our own issues to settle and get in order."

The 49ers are 2-1 this season with Smith at quarterback, while the club sputtered to a 0-3 record behind backup quarterback Trent Dilfer.

Also, the 49ers might be without two offensive starters. Left tackle Jonas Jennings (ankle) and receiver Darrell Jackson (quadriceps) are both questionable with injuries. However, those injuries might not have much of an adverse impact on the 49ers. Both players had started seeing a dip in their playing time, as Nolan has tried to incorporate Adam Snyder at left tackle and Ashley Lelie at split end.


The Saints have had a lot of luck with their offensive line since Sean Payton took over as head coach 24 games ago.

In that span, the Saints had only one game missed because of injury among a starting group that includes center Jeff Faine, tackles Jammal Brown and Jon Stinchcomb, and guards Jamar Nesbit and Jahri Evans. Brown missed one game midway through last season with a sprained ankle.

The Saints will apparently find out Sunday if luck continues. Faine injured his left pectoral muscle in last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.

Payton said they won't make a decision until just before Sunday's game. At this point, it seems unlikely that Faine will play considering a center's blocking duties including working a lot with his hands and arms up near his chest.

"He has a pectoral strain," Payton said. "It's pretty sore and it limits you in how much you can move and expand and block. We'll see where he's at."

Faine said that he hopes to play Sunday, but Payton said there's nothing they can do to help speed up the healing process.

"There's no surgery, there's no procedure," Payton said. "It is what it is. It will take time to where he feels strong enough in that area."

If Faine can't play, six-year NFL veteran Jonathan Goodwin would get his first start since signing with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2006 season. His backup would likely be left guard Jamar Nesbit.

"Jonathan has played a lot and he is an experienced pro," Payton said, when asked how confident he is in Goodwin. If Jeff is unable to go, we know that we have a capable backup in Jonathan. He has played well in the preseason and he played well last week. He played close to 30 plays (against Atlanta) and did a real good job."

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