It is rare for opposing teams to go into New Orleans and find a victory. The San Francisco 49ers did just that on Sunday. Both the franchise and the fan base made their way to Bourbon Street for Sunday’s clash against the New Orleans Saints. The fans arrived in amazing numbers and were visibly and audibly present in the Superdome. On the field, the 49ers were finally on the positive side of a last-second field goal. Today we take a look at the three biggest takeaways from Sunday’s important victory.
For much of the season, the national media and the NFL as a whole have viewed Jimmy Garoppolo as the weak link of this 49ers team. On Sunday, Garoppolo was anything but a weak link. Garoppolo threw for 345 yards on 26 of 35 passing, with four touchdowns and an interception. The lone blemish was the result of a pass going through the hands of Emmanuel Sanders. Garoppolo battled Drew Brees and more than held his own. Garoppolo and the offense kept pace throughout the game and showed zero fear in a big-game atmosphere. Two drives set the tone of the game for the San Francisco offense. At the end of the first half, trailing by a score of 27-21, the 49ers took over at their own 20-yard line and with just over four minutes left before halftime.
Garoppolo led the 49ers on a nine-play drive to pull ahead on a Raheem Mostert 10-yard run. It was a huge momentum boost for the team and put the Saints in the chase position. Then, after Brees and the New Orleans offense drove down the field to take the lead, Garoppolo led the offense on a 49-yard drive in the game’s final 53-seconds to set up the game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould. Garoppolo’s accuracy was on display all game as well as the trust he has developed with the trio of receivers, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, and Sanders. Their stellar play allowed tight end George Kittle the room to get open on the game’s biggest play, a fourth-and-two from the San Francisco 33-yard line. Kittle’s catch and run are only possible from a perfectly placed throw from his quarterback.
Shanahan Outclasses Payton
Sean Payton has deservedly earned the right to be considered an offensive genius. Over the course of his 13 years as the head coach in New Orleans, Payton’s offenses have never finished outside the top-15 in yards on offense. In 10 of those seasons, his offense has finished in the top-five. Part of that success must be attributed to having Brees as his quarterback. However, much of that success comes from Payton’s ability to adapt and counter with his offensive gameplans. On Sunday, Payton put on a display against the league’s top defense. New Orleans scored 46 points but managed to lose. While Garoppolo and the offense executed when asked, it was head coach Kyle Shanahan who led the charge with his excellent play-calling.
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Payton twice elected to go for a two-point conversion, failing both attempts. In a two-point loss, simply kicking the extra point meant the difference. Payton’s aggressiveness left the Saints chasing points in what became a shootout. Later, Payton went with a fake punt attempt which fell incomplete. It put the football near midfield, which the 49ers quickly turned into a touchdown and nine-point lead. Meanwhile, the 49ers ran a wide receiver pass which resulted in a touchdown as Sanders took a pitch from Samuel and found a wide-open Mostert for the score. San Francisco also ran a speed option play, something done just weeks prior by Payton and his offense. At the end of the day, Shanahan and his staff made the right moves in a game that came down to a field goal as time expired.
Cracks in the Armor
Heading into Sunday, the San Francisco defense had found ways to effectively shut down every offense it faced. There had been struggles at times but never to the extent of what happened against Brees and the Saints. The vaunted pass rush failed to create consistent pressure. New Orleans used a quick passing game and also found success in the first half with tight end Jared Cook. The veteran pass-catcher hauled in a pair of touchdown passes on his only two receptions. Cook was injured on his second score and would not return. That was when Brees focused on wide receiver Michael Thomas. San Francisco was able to slow down the All-Pro receiver in the first half. However, Thomas went off in the second half as he was force-fed the football. On the day, Thomas finished with 11 receptions on 15 targets, for 134 yards and a score.
A major factor in the struggles for the San Francisco defense was the absence of safety, Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt serves as the primary defender against opposing tight ends. Marcell Harris got the start at strong safety. Harris missed a key tackle on Jared Cook for the first New Orleans touchdown. The 49ers were also affected by injuries to defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Richard Sherman. Sunday’s struggles were equal parts a tough road game against a talented offense and key pieces on defense missing time. The defense was hit with a few big blows on Sunday. They kept moving forward and made enough plays to avoid the loss. Make no mistake, this unit can be much better than what we’ve seen this season. Sunday’s shocking performance could be the catalyst to get them there.
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Making a Statement
After a disappointing finish in Baltimore, the 49ers needed to prove they could win a big game on the road. It was a battle similar to the final minutes of the 2011 Divisional round clash between the two teams. On that day, Alex Smith found Vernon Davis for the go-ahead touchdown. ON Sunday, it was another tight end wearing 85, George Kittle. The 49ers are the most complete team in the NFC and it can be said that were it not for the weather conditions, they would have defeated the Ravens. With an impressive victory on Sunday, the 49ers announced that they are the team to beat. The defense may struggle but the offense is ready to win football games. The 49ers return home for a pair of games against the Falcons and Rams. What were your takeaways from a wild and crazy victory in New Orleans?
*H/T to Highlight Heaven
– 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