Saints offense vs. 49ers defense
Bush had his coming out party as a rookie against the 49ers in 2006, scoring four touchdowns in New Orleans' 34-10 blowout, and while he didn't go as crazy last year when the Saints routed San Francisco again 31-10, the 49ers feel he's a player they must neutralize to contain New Orleans' high-powered offense. Willis, the NFL's leading tackler last season as a rookie, is a middle linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed and range, so he'll be keying on Bush in the backfield and will want to get to him at the line of scrimmage on running plays before Bush can reach the second level and do what he does best. Lawson, who plays left outside linebacker, also has tremendous speed, and Bush will be his responsibility in several coverage packages, and also when Bush splits out and sets up in the slot. Not many linebackers can run with Bush, but Lawson can, and at 6-foot-5 with a lengthy wingspan, he is a defender that's difficult to get a pass over when he's running with a receiving target. The 49ers have plenty to worry about with a Drew Brees-led offense, but they know from experience that they must place focus on Bush wherever he is on the field.
It sounds like rookie Carl Nicks will replace the suspended Nesbit, who is out for four weeks. Nicks will have to step in and fill Nesbit's shoes quickly, because the running backs need holes and QB Drew Brees needs protection. Whoever is over there will have to deal with the second-year end McDonald, who is coming into his own in the 49ers' 3-4 defense. After making three tackles last year in nine games last season, he's already made nine tackles in three starts and defended a pass.
Saints defense vs. 49ers offense
49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan vs. Saints secondary
Though this is only O'Sullivan's fourth NFL start, he already appears to have mastered Mike Martz's intricate offense, and that means looking off safeties and cornerbacks and making good decisions regarding where to go with the football. O'Sullivan has a quick release and delivers precise, accurate passes, and he has been very good about finding the open receiver and recognizing voids in coverage so far, as his 104.6 quarterback rating might suggest. He is quick to spot single-coverage opportunities, and the New Orleans secondary will have its hands full because San Francisco likes to throw to its backs and tight ends as well as wideouts. O'Sullivan had completions to eight different players last week — by halftime — so the Saints can't focus on taking any particular player out of the game and must realize the ball could realistically be coming to any target running down the field on any given play.
Saints front seven vs. RB Frank Gore
Despite all of the changes the Saints made in their defense, the numbers aren't backing up the moves. The Saints are giving up 133 yards per game on the ground and have the No. 28 defense in the NFL. Those are the kinds of numbers Gore surely likes, as he's averaging 4.8 yards per carry and has scored three times. The Saints are going to have to get penetration early and often and limit Gore's effectiveness to put the game in the hands of O'Sullivan.
The Saints will win if …
If they can run the ball effectively to insulate QB Drew Brees from pressure and someone steps up to be a deep threat. Without Marques Colston and now Jeremy Shockey, it's unclear which of Brees' weapons will step up and deliver. The Saints also have to stop the pass effectively, something they have not done all season. The 49ers have enough weapons to exploit a secondary that is still trying to recover from injuries.
The 49ers will win if…
They can continue their steady progress on offense, take advantage of some of New Orleans' defensive weaknesses and put points on the board. It's going to take at least three touchdowns to win this game, and the 49ers didn't even score the equivalent of three touchdowns combined in their two losses to the Saints over the past two seasons. San Francisco — which enters Sunday's having scored 30 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 2003 — has the offensive firepower to run up the scoreboard against this opponent, and if the 49ers can sustain drives and keep their defense off the field, that should be the formula to pick up a victory.
The Saints will lose if …
… they can't get Deuce McAllister more involved in the run game, which would loosen up San Francisco's defense and give Reggie Bush more avenues to run. Also, the Saints must put pressure on O'Sullivan, who has proved he can exploit defenses when given time to throw.
The 49ers will lose if …
They make mistakes and don't protect the football. The 49ers would be 3-0 right now if they didn't commit five turnovers in their season opener against Arizona. Another turnover early in Week 2 against Seattle was returned for a touchdown that put San Francisco down 14-0 in the first quarter, but since then the 49ers have played turnover-free football and have been difficult to stop. The 49ers also need some defensive stops and can't let the New Orleans offense run fancy-free like the past two years. If this game goes anything close to the form of the past two seasons and the Saints have anything close to 30-plus points again, they'll be celebrating another victory.
Matthew Postins: San Francisco 23, New Orleans 20. I'm tired of picking the Saints and being wrong. Until they show they can find consistency in their running game and stop something on defense, I'm taking the opponent.
Craig Massei: San Francisco 27, New Orleans 23. The 49ers need a breakthrough victory as they enter a fierce stretch of schedule, and this is it. Sure, San Francisco is 2-1 and both its defense and offense are in the top 11 of the NFL rankings, but nobody really believes it yet. San Francisco makes some believers here by taking advantage of a good but banged-up Saints team that still is looking for answers on defense while the 49ers are finding theirs on offense.
Craig Massei covers the 49ers for SFillustrated.com
Matthew Postins covers the Saints for Saintsinsider.com