This Sunday, the premier game of the week pits two 2013 playoff contestants against each other again as the San Francisco 49ers (4-4) travel to the SuperDome to play the New Orleans Saints (4-4). Both teams are sitting at .500 and a loss at this point could do substantial damage to their playoff aspirations.
The 49ers come into the game riding back-to-back losses to the Denver Broncos and then the St. Louis Rams. The strength of the team last season, their defense, has been hurt by injuries to key players. Star middle linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who have eight First-Team All-Pro selections among them, are still sidelined, as are major contributors Jimmy Ward and Glen Dorsey. The defense will get Aldon Smith back this weekend which should boost their pass-rush.
Interestingly enough, the defense has gotten on fairly well without their star players, sitting at second in the league in yards allowed and seventh in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) which takes into account how the yards were surrendered and at what point in the game. It has been the offense, which had a strong 2013 campaign, which has not pulled its weight.
The offense sits at 21st in yards and 22nd in efficiency, mostly due to their very low passing offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been ineffectual at moving the ball up the field, averaging only 221 yards per game and 1.5 touchdowns. By Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) Kaepernick sits at 23rd in the league after being 7th in 2013. A dearth of play-makers and a subpar season from Vernon Davis has contributed to Kaeprernick’s issues, but the quarterback must improve his play.
The Saints, meanwhile, are persistently among the league’s best offenses and this season is no different. Third in the league in passing and seventh in rushing, the team has gotten strong quarterback play from Drew Brees and dominant performances from Jimmy Graham, when healthy. The most interesting aspect of the Saints offense is their success rushing for scores. This season, the team has punched in 12 rushing touchdowns in eight games, compared to 10 all of last year.
The matchup to focus on is tight end Jimmy Graham against the interior of the 49ers defense. If Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman were healthy, the 49ers would probably feel comfortable lining them up in single coverage against Graham. Instead, primary Graham coverage duties will be shouldered by Chris Borland, who will have his hands full with the half-foot taller Graham.
“It’s a tough match-up and makes it tougher that he’s a part of a very balanced offense so it’s hard to give special attention to one guy all the time,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told ESPN.com. “We just have to go out and play.” Expect San Francisco to help Borland with safeties over the top and chips at the line.
Halfway through the season, the 49ers have had their chances to fix the offense and significant change is unlikely. The Saints seems to be getting into a groove, and the 49ers will have issues slowing the offense down without their play-makers. Expect the 49ers to come out aggressively but the Saints at home to have the edge in this game.