The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.
San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.
ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:
Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.
Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.
Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?
Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.
On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?
Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.
This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?
Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?
Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.
How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?
Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.