It is often said that to be successful in battle, a great warrior needs to know not only his strengths, but more importantly his weaknesses, in order to better parry his opponents' attacks. When the New Orleans Saints face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, each team will be trying to exploit the other's shortcomings to assure itself of victory.
But what exactly are the Saints most damning flaws? How about those of the Niners? David Fucillo of Niners Nation was kind enough to speak with us about San Francisco's weakest points both on offense and defense, while I will do the honor when it comes to the Saints most glaring weaknesses.
Why the 49ers will lose
The San Francisco 49ers offensive line has been fairly abysmal for much of this season. They have had stretches of looking solid, but for the most part, it has been the biggest weakness of the team. If the OL does not hold up against Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, it will be a long day for the team.
This line has been dealing with injuries all season, and this week will actually mark the first time this season they have had the same starting lineup of their No. 1s in place for at least two weeks. Marcus Martin is a rookie center who took over for Daniel Kilgore last week, following the latter's broken ankle in Week 7. Martin is expected to be the starter the rest of the season, and he is coming off a tough outing against the Rams. He is incredibly talented, but also just getting his feet wet in the NFL. The line as a whole is a huge question mark, but Martin in the middle will be one to watch.
Three weeks ago, Peyton Manning thoroughly shredded the 49ers defense. Aside from Manning being a Hall of Fame quarterback, the 49ers were without numerous starters due to injury. This week, they could be without Tramaine Brock and Patrick Willis for the second straight week. My biggest concern is how the Saints use Jimmy Graham. If Willis sits, the 49ers will be playing Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland in the middle. Both are very solid against the run, but struggle in coverage. I have no idea how the 49ers will cover Graham on Sunday, but I have to think it will involve a lot more than sticking the 6'0 Wilhoite or 5'11 Borland on him in one-on-one coverage.
I think the rest of the 49ers secondary can hang with the Saints wide receivers. My biggest concern is Graham. Combine that with the 49ers up and down pass rush, and a poor performance could put them in place for a long afternoon in the Superdome. Aaron Lynch has been their best pass rusher, and it will be essential that he get pressure on Brees. However the 49ers choose to defend Graham, a solid pass rush would be a big friend to that. Without it, they could be in big trouble.
Why the Saints Will Lose
The 2014 edition of the Saints offense has been fairly deceiving. Despite quarterback Drew Brees having struggled at times earlier this year, the Saints are ranked 4th in weighted offensive efficiency in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, with a 15.9% DVOA. They're also ranked 2nd in rushing efficiency (12.0% DVOA). Moreover, the Saints are 1st in the NFL in yards per play (6.2) and in 1st down conversions per game (27.1) and 3rd in third down efficiency (51.5%).
So how has such a seemingly lethal offense contributed to the Saints mediocre 4-4 start? One simple answer: turnovers. The Saints have given the ball away in seven of their eight games this season. In six of the seven games in which they have turned the ball over, the Saints have done so at least twice. In total, New Orleans has had 15 giveaways (eight interceptions and seven fumbles lost). The "Black and Gold" have actually coughed the ball up a combined 10 times, but were fortunate to recover three of those fumbles. Overall, the Saints have a -6 turnover differential, which doesn't bode well for them against a San Francisco 49ers squad boasting a +4 turnover differential that includes nine interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
The reason the Saints will lose this game on offense is the propensity of their offense to make the critical and crippling mistake, while the Niners' defense has been quite skilled at taking advantage of such mistakes.
Contrary to New Orleans' offense, which is highly-ranked in pretty much every category except for turnovers, the Saints defense has been fairly mediocre all year. Despite a slight resurgence in their last three games, New Orleans' defensive unit is ranked 27th in total defense by Football Outsiders with a 7.4% DVOA (For defense, a negative value is better). They haven't been very good at stopping the run (23rd, -2.9% DVOA, allowing 4.1 yards per rush) and they have been even worse against the pass (24th, 18.8% DVOA, allowing 7.2 yards per pass). The Saints have let opposing quarterbacks complete 63.3% of their passes so far this season and New Orleans' scoring defense is 21st in the NFL, giving up 24.8 points per game.
The main reason New Orleans will lose this game on defense however is probably the weakness at the second cornerback spot. Although number one corner Keenan Lewis has been great this year, neither second year cornerback Corey White or five-year veteran Patrick Robinson have been able to solidify that number two cornerback position. White has been "Johnny on the spot" in the Saints' last two games, picking off a pair of deflected passes. When examining those plays closely however, the men he was supposed to cover were open, and those interceptions where simply lucky bounces. The upcoming contest on Sunday could be a game in which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gets his passing groove back. All he would need to do is accurately target whoever either White or Robinson is covering.