The San Francisco 49ers have been the most consistent team in the NFL in 2019. They were the last unbeaten team in the league and have only lost to two of the league’s best. However, the 49ers are now staring at a wild card spot and a long road to the Super Bowl. On Sunday, San Francisco heads down to the Bayou to take on the New Orleans Saints. Both teams are competing for the top overall seed in the NFC and the first-round bye that comes with it. For the 49ers, Sunday’s matchup is another test for a team that has now played the Seahawks, Packers, and Ravens in three out of the last four weeks. Today we take a look at the matchup in the Superdome and the keys to a San Francisco victory in New Orleans.
Mostert the Monster
Raheem Mostert is the second leading rusher on the 49ers roster. His 539 yards are just three yards behind Matt Breida. However, Mostert has 17 fewer rushing attempts. The special teams standout has quickly become a consistent big-play runner for the 49ers. Against the Ravens, Mostert finished with 146 yards rushing on 19 attempts. He averaged 7.68 yards per attempt and also added a touchdown. Against the Saints, Mostert must once again turn in a powerful performance on the ground. It is no secret that the Saints have an effective and explosive offense. Sustained drives by the 49ers will go a long way to keeping the Saints offense on the sideline.
With George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk both available, the 49ers have proven to have the ability to run the football against anyone. The ground game kept San Francisco within striking distance against Baltimore. It will do the same in New Orleans. As of Wednesday’s practice, it looks as if the 49ers could have their full offering of ground options. Matt Breida has resumed practice after missing the previous two contests. Even with the multitude of options with the addition of Breida and Tevin Coleman, Mostert has done enough to earn the starting job. The 49ers would be wise to focus on their dynamic running back and feed him the football.
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According to Urban Dictionary, the term “Gucci” is used to describe something or someone who is great, awesome, or fresh. Against Baltimore, Jimmy Garoppolo was anything but Gucci. San Francisco held an early advantage against Baltimore. Then came a critical turnover. In the first quarter, with the 49ers leading by a touchdown, Garoppolo was sacked and lost the football. Baltimore recovered the loose football and the offense eventually tacked on a touchdown in the subsequent drive. It was a turning point in which came early in the contest but proved to be a major moment. Against a talented team like the Ravens, extra opportunities typically lead to points. It was the only mistake from Garoppolo. The San Francisco quarterback has received the brunt of the criticism directed at the 49ers this season.
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His turnovers have come at inopportune moments and have helped contribute to both of San Francisco’s losses this season. However, Garoppolo has also been the driving force behind a handful of victories. The 49ers have one of the best offensive play-callers in the league in head coach Kyle Shanahan. Garoppolo has the tools to lead the offense and is on pace to finish the season north of 3,500 yards passing. Through 12 games, Garoppolo has thrown for 2,896 yards on 69% passing, adding 21 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. New Orleans will undoubtedly focus on slowing down the San Francisco rushing attack. If the 49ers hope to take a major step towards securing a first-round bye, the quarterback needs to live up to the moniker of Gucci Garopp and play his best. The 49ers won’t have a chance if he doesn’t.
Through 12 weeks, the San Francisco defense has allowed the fewest passing yards in the league. The defense has the fourth-best interception rate at 3.1% and leads the league in sack rate at 11.3%. No other team has broken 10%. The Saints are ninth in passing yards per game and sixth in fewest sacks allowed. It is a battle of strength versus strength. The Saints are without their top pair of tackles with Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat battling injuries and likely out on Sunday. San Francisco is likely to see the return of defensive end, Dee Ford, who has missed the previous two games with back issues. The San Francisco defensive line has been extensively discussed. They are the most talented line in the NFL with five first-round selections among the group.
The pass rush will be important in forcing Drew Brees to throw the football earlier than planned. Brees’ top target is wide receiver Michael Thomas, arguably the top player at the position. Thomas has already accumulated 110 receptions through the first 12 games, totaling 1,290 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Expect San Francisco defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, to employ bracket coverage to help slow down Thomas. Whether in the slot or outside, Thomas is sure to find a pair of defenders following him. The 49ers benefit from four talented cornerbacks on the roster in Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon, and K’Waun Williams. This provides flexibility through the rest of the defense. The combination of solid coverage and a fierce pass rush is something the Saints have not faced this season.
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Coming off a tough loss against Baltimore, the 49ers saw their NFC West lead evaporate with the Seattle victory on Monday night. With the final four games remaining, San Francisco sits in second-place within the division and are currently the fifth seed in the NFC. Sunday’s road game in New Orleans is the finale of a three-game stretch where the 49ers played the toughest three-game schedule this late in the season, in NFL history. The run began with a dominating victory against the Packers. Sunday provides a chance to make it two out of three with a victory in New Orleans. The 49ers have proven to have a team capable of challenging anyone in the league. On Sunday, they have a chance to reassert themselves as the best team in the NFC and put the pressure back on their rivals in Seattle.
– Ryan Adverderada is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage 49ers. He also covered the Arizona Cardinals for Full Press Coverage. Like and follow on Follow @ryanadverderada