The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers clash this Sunday in an important match up for NFC playoff positioning. Both teams come into this game with 10-2 records. The Saints currently own the conference's top spot and have already clinched the NFC South thanks to a 26-18 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving. San Francisco is tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the top spot in the NFC West after a narrow road loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers have been one of the NFL's top teams this season thanks in large part to their dominant defense. San Francisco is second in points surrendered (15.3/game) and first in yards allowed (251/game) while causing 24 turnovers. They visit a New Orleans team that has one of the most balanced offenses in the league. The Saints have averaged 24.8 points and 394 yards per game. They have turned the ball over only 7 times, fewest in the league. Here is how the New Orleans offense matches up against the 49ers' top ranked defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. 49ERS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans averages 254 yards per game through the air, ranking 9th in the league. Quarterback Drew Brees has averaged 298 yards passing in the six full games he's played this season though, throwing 12 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions while completing nearly 74% of his attempts. Brees has the luxury of throwing to the NFL's best receiver. Michael Thomas is on a record-setting pace in 2019, catching a league-leading 110 receptions and 1,290 yards with 6 touchdowns.
The Saints receiving production outside of Thomas has been inconsistent at best. Running back Alvin Kamara is a bonafide receiving threat, not just out of the backfield but all over the offensive formation. Kamara is second on the team in receptions with 64, but has been somewhat contained for 444 yards and 1 touchdown. Tight end Jared Cook has emerged as the big threat that the team hoped for when acquiring him as a free agent. Cook has 32 catches for 459 yards and 4 scores, but has had some key drops and just a 60% catch percentage. While Cook has proven to be a threat down the field despite some drops, wideouts Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre'Quan Smith have contributed little consistently. Ginn has 24 receptions for 348 yards and 2 touchdowns but has hauled in only 52% of his targets. Smith (9 catches, 115 yards) has missed six games with injury and continues to flash potential, but is also frustratingly erratic.
The New Orleans offensive line has been fantastic in pass protection. Brees and Teddy Bridgewater have been sacked only 20 times, with 11 of those coming in two games. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk in particular, has shut down some of the league's most disruptive pass rushers. The Saints continued to be shorthanded on the left side of their line, however, with Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat sidelined by injury. Nick Easton has done a nice job at left guard, while Patrick Omameh was serviceable at left tackle against the Falcons. Armstead is questionable with a high ankle sprain, but expect New Orleans to employ a passing attack that gets the ball out of Brees' hands quickly and on rythm.
San Francisco's pass defense ranks first in the NFL, giving up a paltry 134 yards per contest. The 49ers create havoc with a defensive line built with high draft picks. Ends Arik Armstead (10 sacks) and rookie of the year candidate Nick Bosa (8 sacks) lead a ferocious assault on opposing quarterbacks that has resulted in 45 sacks. End Dee Ford (6.5 sacks) is questionable for this game with an ankle injury but Solomon Thomas supplies solid depth outside. Fourth year defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has added 6.5 sacks inside and is having a Pro Bowl caliber season.
San Francisco has intercepted opposing quarterbacks 11 times this season, led by 3 from veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. K'Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon have combined for 3 interceptions, teaming with Sherman to give the Niners a solid trio of cornerbacks. Free safety Jimmie Ward has terrific range on the back end to make quarterbacks pay for testing this defense deep.
Even in his ninth season, Sherman is San Francisco's best and most physical cover cornerback. Both Thomas and Cook will present a unique challenge to a 49er secondary that likes to be physical with opposing receivers.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints OT's vs. 49ers DE's
Armstead is officially listed as questionable for this game at left tackle. Even if he does play, it will be at less than 100% of his normal mobility. Armstead or Omameh will most often face off against Arik Armstead while Ramczyk will take on Bosa, though the 49ers do like to move each end around. San Francisco's defensive success is predicated on pressure from their ends, while the Saints' offensive strength has been their star tackles.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. 49ERS RUN DEFENSE
The Saints average 107 yards per game on the ground to rank 17th in the league. They attack defenses with a versatile 1-2 punch of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray at running back, sprinkling in quarterback Taysom Hill to keep the opposition even more off balance. Kamara leads the way with 587 yards rushing and averages 4.7 per carry, but has just 1 rushing touchdown. Murray, who has two 100-Yd games this season, has 464 yards and 5 touchdowns. Hill has 127 yards and 1 score on the ground but has actually been more effective as a receiver in 2019, catching 16 passes for 114 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The New Orleans offensive line effectively controls the point of attack and does a fine job of opening cutback lanes for their backs. Right guard Larry Warford and rookie center Erik McCoy have been road-graders inside, often giving Kamara and Murray a clean path to the second level of the defense.
The 49ers have been a bit vulnerable against the run. Their 22nd ranked run defense has allowed 117 yards/game and 4.7 per carry. San Francisco lost their most athletic run defender, linebacker Kwon Alexander, to a torn pectoral injury six weeks ago that ended his season. Since then, opponents have averaged 146 yards per game on the ground against their defense. Linebacker Fred Warner leads the 49ers in tackles with 92 and has been a playmaker, but the unit as a whole has been beaten to the corner and guilty of over pursuit.
DeForest Buckner is second on the team in tackles, but the 49ers defensive line has struggled a bit with leverage from time to time. He and D.J. Jones will be a handful for McCoy, Warford, and Nick Easton inside.
Matchup to Watch:
Kamara/Murray vs. 49ers LB's
Alvin Kamara is still a huge part of the New Orleans offense, but hasn't made the game-breaking plays we've become accustomed to seeing. He and Murray will both be a key to the Saints' offensive success on Sunday. The San Francisco linebackers are active, but at an athletic disadvantage against the New Orleans running backs without Alexander.
Expect New Orleans to also use both running backs heavily in the passing game to offset San Francisco's pass rush. The key for the Saints will be patience. Michael Thomas has not been contained by any defense in 2019, but will be challenged by Sherman on every play. Coach Sean Payton will undoubtedly have a game plan designed to get the ball out of Brees' hands quickly, but New Orleans must also stay committed to the run game for success against an outstanding 49ers defense.
What is the biggest offensive match up facing the Saints against the 49ers defense?
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Saints OT's vs. Armstead/Bosa
Kamara/Murray vs. 49ers LB's
Michael Thomas vs. Richard Sherman
Jared Cook vs. 49ers safeties
Easton/McCoy/Warford vs. Buckner/Jones