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49ers vs. Saints preview: 3 things to watch in Sunday's NFC showdown

The 49ers and Saints are both .500 teams, but couldn't be in more different situations heading into their game Sunday afternoon.

The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers are both 4-4 on the season, but are headed in two totally different directions entering their Week 10 matchup Sunday afternoon. The 49ers have lost two straight and are fighting for a playoff spot, three games back of the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals and a game out in the wild card race. The Saints have won their last two games, and sit atop a weak NFC South where no team is above .500.

Coming off three straight NFC Championship appearances, the 49ers were expected by some to be Super Bowl contenders again this season, but things have gone horribly wrong both on and off the field. Rumors continue to swirl about the job status of coach Jim Harbaugh, while the team's four losses already match its total from last year. The lone saving grace might be the fact that San Francisco has played the NFL's toughest schedule so far this season, and has the easiest remaining slate of any NFC West team.

New Orleans is coming off two dominating wins, beating the Packers 44-23 in Week 8 and the Panthers 28-10 in Week 9. The offense appears to be rounding into form over the last month, averaging 33 points per game in its last four contests. That's nearly 10 points more than the 23.8 points per game the Saints put up in the first four games, during which they went 1-3. The Saints not only have the momentum of two straight wins heading into this matchup, they also have the all-important homefield advantage. New Orleans has won 11 straight home games, the second-longest active streak in the league, and hasn't lost at the Superdome with Sean Payton as head coach since 2010.

Let's take a look at three things to watch heading into this key battle between the 49ers and Saints:

1. 49ers' offensive line

The biggest concern for the 49ers' offense has to be the play of the offensive line, both in pass protection and run blocking. Colin Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times in the last two games, and has gone down at least three times in five games. No player has taken more sacks this season than Kaepernick (27), who has predictably not played well when pressured. He has a passer rating of 81.6 under duress, compared to 98.9 when he can operate in a clean pocket.

The 49ers' ground game has virtually disappeared recently, failing to gain 100 rush yards in each of the last three games. They are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in that span, compared to 4.5 in their first five games, and haven't scored a rushing touchdown since Week 3. San Francisco needs much better play at the line of scrimmage if it's going to be a playoff contender this season.

2. 49ers' red zone efficiency

Another issue plaguing the 49ers' offense this season is their struggles inside the 20-yard line. Last week against the St. Louis Rams, they failed to score a touchdown on each of their two red zone trips, including a goal-line fumble by Kaepernick with seconds left in the game, which sealed the 13-10 loss for the 49ers. This problem of scoring touchdowns inside the 20 has been a season-long trend for San Francisco, which ranks last in the NFL in red zone efficiency (40 percent).

Although Kaepernick has yet to throw a pick in the red zone, he has played poorly inside the 20. His Total QBR in the red zone is 44.9 (25th in NFL), and he is averaging just 3.4 yards per red zone pass attempt (21st in NFL). If the 49ers can't get more points from their red zone drives, they will face an uphill battle in competing with the league's best teams.

3. Saints' balanced offense

The Saints have typically featured a pass-happy attack, thanks to the prolific arm of Drew Brees and the consistent production of receivers such as Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. This 2014 version of the Saints, however, is the most balanced on offense in the Brees-Payton era. New Orleans is the only NFL team averaging at least 125 rush yards and 300 passing yards per game this season.

Much of the credit is due to the emergence of Mark Ingram as the feature back in a running game that is now a real strength for the team. Ingram has run for 272 yards on 54 carries over the last two games, becoming the first Saints running back with consecutive 100-yard rush games since Deuce McAllister in 2006. For the season, the Saints rank seventh in the NFL in rush yards per game (129.5) and — more impressively — are fourth in yards per rush (4.8).