Both teams are .500, although they've been moving in opposite directions, with New Orleans winning two straight and San Francisco losing two straight en route to their showdown Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But the Saints will hardly take the 49ers lightly, since they've turned into one of their biggest nemeses in recent years.
ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez discuss this week's matchup:
Triplett: Paul, I was stunned to see the 49ers had given up 14 sacks over the past two weeks. I've always considered that offensive line as their strength. I know you've dissected it quite a bit already this week, but what's the sense going forward? Is that a bit of an anomaly, or is it a genuine weakness as they head into the Superdome?
Gutierrez: Look at it this way: The projected line of LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis got to play together for all of one quarter this season. And now a rookie, Marcus Martin, is at center after Kilgore's season-ending broken left ankle suffered in Denver two games back. This is not an anomaly; this is a problem. Because while they have given up 14 sacks over the past two games, including a career-high eight of Colin Kaepernick to the Rams, the protection issues started well before Games 7 and 8.
Kaepernick has been sacked at least three times in five games. Only Jacksonville has taken at least three sacks more often, with six such games. And Niners quarterbacks have been sacked on 8.6 percent of their dropbacks this season, second only to those same Jaguars. That rate is the Niners' worst since 2008, when it was 9.3 percent. Staley raised eyebrows when he blamed "dumb schemes" along with "dumb blocks" and "dumb techniques" in the locker room following the loss to the Rams.
It seems like the Saints' offense is starting to show some semblance of its former high-powered self. Is this fool's gold, or have Drew Brees & Co. finally gotten their legs under themselves? If so, what's been the kick-starter there?
Triplett: It's legit. In fact, the Saints' offense was playing better than people realized when they started 2-4. They rank first in the NFL in yards per play and offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Their biggest problem has been turnovers: Brees has thrown eight interceptions, and they've lost a whopping seven fumbles.
Other than that, Brees has been sharp. He leads the NFL in completion percentage, and he has finally started to hit on deep balls over the past three weeks. More importantly, the Saints are as balanced as they've ever been in the Brees-Sean Payton era, with the run game turning into a real strength. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards two weeks ago against Green Bay and another 100 last week at Carolina. With other diverse weapons such as Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, they're as "pick your poison" as ever. The "kick-starter" has probably been the improved play of the defense, which has been forcing more turnovers and giving the Saints' offense even more opportunities.
How is Kaepernick playing specifically? Last week, the Saints defense was halfway successful against another dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton. He broke off five long runs -- but he did zip as a passer, which allowed New Orleans to dominate in a 28-10 win.
Gutierrez: Up and down. Down and up. In a word, inconsistent. I would not say he's regressed, per se, but he has not progressed as much as many observers thought he would by now, or as much as the 49ers hoped he would, so to speak. He put on a show on "Monday Night Football" at St. Louis last month, but then seemed out of it against the same team despite the Niners coming out of their bye week.
Early on, it seemed as though the 49ers were trying to make him more of a pure pocket-passer and wanted him to eschew the run, even as that's what made him such a dual-threat quarterback. He can throw a fastball like no other, but he is still showing a lack of touch on certain passes, especially the corner fade to Michael Crabtree. Hey, if he connects with him on that throw, the Niners are probably two-time defending Super Bowl champs.
But as mentioned earlier, it's tough for him to progress when he's on the run so often, if not already on his back. A number of drops by normally sure-handed receivers has hurt, too.
Such is the lot for an NFL quarterback, though -- too much credit when things are going well, too much blame when they're not. I asked him after Sunday's loss how hard it was to do his job when under such duress, and he said, "That's why I'm here, to make plays regardless of the situation. I have to be better back there."
The Saints don't seem to have a particularly fearsome pass rush -- 17 sacks in eight games -- but the Rams had only six coming into last week before sacking Kaepernick eight times. Is New Orleans' pass rush especially dependent on the coverage skills of the secondary, or do the Saints have playmakers who can get to the quarterback without gimmicks or blitzes?
Triplett: The Saints' pass rush has been the most improved aspect of their team over the past month. Twelve of those sacks have come over the past 13 quarters. That's how it was supposed to be, since the strength of New Orleans' defense last year was Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and their ability to generate pressure with just a four-man rush. They sacked Newton four times last week, including a game-changing sack-fumble by Galette in the second quarter.
Of course, it helps when the coverage is solid, but it was more of the opposite effect in the first month of the year, when the pass rush was giving quarterbacks too much time to pick apart a shaky secondary. The Saints have one outstanding corner in Keenan Lewis, while the other corners have steadily improved after a rough start.
What about the 49ers' defense? Their sack totals are down as well (only 13 all season). Has the defense overall taken a step back this year?
Gutierrez: If we're talking Q rating, then yes, the 49ers' defense is down. The unit is missing nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and three All-Pro linebackers in Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, whose suspension still has one game to go. As a result, the defense has not been as fearsome as in years past. But it has not been a dog, either. In fact, it's been more than admirable. The defense has not been the problem this season; the blame rests mainly with the offense. So even when the defense gets its three star linebackers back in the fold and another former starter on the line, that's not really going to help the offense.
Still, the thought of Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch, who could supplant Ahmad Brooks as a nickel rusher, teaming up could cause headaches for offensive coordinators. Maybe, just maybe, a fresh defense could be just what a conflicted Niners offense needs at this juncture.
Tough question, I know, but is the organization finally over the stigma of Bountygate, or is it a cross it loves to bear, so to speak, by using that whole "us against the world" mentality?
Triplett: That really feels like an afterthought, to be honest. I'm sure it will always exist on some level, but it's not the motivational tool that drives this team on a weekly basis anymore. Especially not this year, when the message after their 2-4 start was that they can't rely on any of their past successes, either.
In general, though, Payton's "maverick" mentality as a fiery motivator and aggressive offensive schemer will always shape this team's personality. So they will always be a team that plays with that edge, for a number of reasons.