If the 49ers were to make a miraculous run to the playoffs, it would begin right now. As unlikely as that is, a statement win over the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) would propel the 49ers into the conversation before the Week 11 bye.
The San Francisco 49ers (4-5) are coming off two bad losses to both the Seattle Seahawks (6-2) and the Green Bay Packers (6-2) amid their continued injury-plagued season.
Losers of two straight, the 49ers look to upset the Saints at a Super Dome that has lost its notorious home-field advantage due to limited fan capacity.
Who’s available for the 49ers?
Due to multiple waves of injuries, and a few covid scares, the 49ers are still without some of their biggest players.
On offense, WR Deebo Samuel and RB Tevin Coleman remain out for the 49ers this week. These two teams square off again after their epic showdown in 2019 that ended in a dramatic win for the 49ers. This time around, the 49ers will be without QB Jimmy Garoppolo, TE George Kittle, RB Raheem Mostert, and more.
On defense, the 49ers were hoping to activate one of their stars in the secondary. CB Richard Sherman returned to practice this week, and there was optimism that he would be able to suit up. A nagging calf injury will sideline him for one more game before the bye week.
In addition to Sherman, CB K’Waun Williams (week-to-week) and S Jaquiski Tartt (Season-ending Injured Reserve) are also out for Sunday’s matchup. A big blow to the 49ers secondary that is tasked with containing Saints receivers Michael Thomas and former 49er Emmanuel Sanders.
However, there is some good news. After being placed on the Covid-19 List days before the Week 9 loss to the Packers, all three of WR Kendrick Bourne, WR Brandon Aiyuk, and OT Trent Williams will return to action against the Saints.
49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan said Aiyuk and Williams were eager to get back to practicing after a frustrating trip to the Covid list before last week’s game:
“I think those are two guys in particular that I think were playing at probably their personal highest levels of the year. They were really eager to get to that game and you go through the week of practice and you kind of get surprised by it. So, I think they were a little frustrated and eager to get out there on the football field, which was nice. Anytime they sweat or were breathing too hard, guys mess with them, they should have extremely fresh legs and be nice and ready to go. It was just a few days that they missed. So, I know they’re happy to back and we’re happy to have them out there.”
Breaking down the Saints offense
The 49ers are catching the Saints at the absolute worst time — go figure!
QB Drew Brees and the Saints offense was not the same without Thomas, their star wideout. A heavy workload from superstar RB Alvin Kamara carried the offense through the first half of the season. With both players on the field, the Saints offense is complete and will pose a major threat to an incomplete 49ers defense.
Shanahan echoed that same thought when asked how much of a threat the Saints offense is with Kamara in the backfield:
“I mean huge. How good he is at running the ball and the fact how good he is out of the backfield to man-to-man routes, just check downs or screens. Then when you pair him with the receivers he has and the quarterback he has, it’s the perfect combination of everything.”
Thomas returned to the field last week after missing six games due to an ankle and hamstring injury. It’s not clear just how big of a role Thomas will have Sunday, but for the 49ers sake, they’re hoping he’s still shaking the rust off.
If the Saints offense is to have their way with this 49ers defense, it will be through the air. Kamara is a great running back, but the 49ers defensive line has held their own against backs this season, and i expect them to limit his rushing ability Sunday. Kamara though, is an even better pass-catcher, and will without a doubt pose a major threat to the 49ers linebacking core on short passes from Brees.
The Saints offense will score plenty of points Sunday, but if you’re the 49ers, you need to hang around and force a couple of turnovers on defense if you want to have a chance to win this game.
The 49ers offense…or what’s left of it
Backup QB Nick Mullens has proven that he’s capable of rising to the occasion, although he’s battled inconsistencies throughout his time as a starter. If the 49ers had all of their weapons available Sunday, including Kittle and Samuel, then this would be a much different conversation.
Last week, the 49ers were decimated at the wide receiver position. Fourth-string WR Richie James Jr. acted as the number one pass catcher for the 49ers against the Packers, hauling in 9 catches for 184 yards and 1 TD. That will not be the case Sunday.
The return of Aiyuk and Bourne will give the 49ers a couple of extra bodies, which won’t lead to force-feeding one pass catcher the whole game. The return of TE Jordan Reed last week will be a boost to the passing game in the absence of Kittle, who was a big reason the 49ers won their last game against the Saints last season.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, the Saints defense is very good. The New Orleans defense ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed (311.6 yards per game), 12th in passing (231.4), and second in rushing (80.3).
Mullens gave his scouting report of the Saints defense:
“Yeah, they do a great job. They’re very sound. They’re very detailed and they’re aggressive. They’re experienced. They’re an experienced group and they’re getting after the quarterback right now. So, they’re playing at a very high level and we’re aware of the challenge, but we’re preparing every day and we feel just as confident. We love our game plan. I love the guys we’ve got on the field and we’re ready to attack.”
The defensive backfield consists of big names such as S Malcolm Jenkins, CB Marshon Lattimore, and CB Janoris Jenkins. The defense is rounded-out by Demario Davis at linebacker, and Cameron Jordan at defensive end. A complete group at all levels of the defense will certainly pose a big threat to Mullens and the 49ers offense Sunday.
- Two former 49ers players who were crucial to the Super Bowl run in 2019, are on track to play their former team Sunday. Both WR Emmanuel Sanders and newly-acquired LB Kwon Alexander will play for the Saints on Sunday.
- We may not have seen the last from Jimmy Garoppolo this season…