So, once again the 49ers are coming off a disappointing loss. The team seemed to have a chance early on against the Giants, but the Gore fumble seemed to completely switch the momentum. And of course the three subsequent Dilfer turnovers didn't exactly improve the situation. Nonetheless, it's time to move on as the 49ers face a key matchup against the Saints. Both teams are 2-4, but they appear to be heading in opposite directions. After an atrocious start, the Saints seem to be righting the ship and have won two straight thanks in some part to solid defensive performances. The offense is nowhere as explosive as it was last year, but they've taken care of business the last two weeks.
When the 49ers and Saints squared off last year the 49ers were in the midst of a 3-game losing streak that effectively ended their playoff chances. The Saints, on the other hand, were in the middle of a 3-game winning streak that solidified their playoff bid. Once again, the two teams are heading in opposite directions, although neither is particularly good this season. Last year's game turned on Deuce McCallister running all over us and Reggie Bush catching passes all day long, including a 74-yard reception that led to a Bush 10-yard TD run. The 49ers hung around into the 3rd quarter and then were promptly blown out of the Superdome.
Even though Deuce will be out this weekend, Reggie Bush remains a prominent dual threat on the ground and threw the air. The difference this year is that he's carrying the full load without a solid alternate to rest him. Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker are getting touches, but they're obviously not Deuce McCallister. The good news is that the 49ers can concentrate more of their defense on containing Bush. The bad news is that like with the Shockey matchup, they lack the type of linebacker who can hang with Bush. I'd assume Mark Roman will be playing a little closer to the line and providing coverage help for Brandon Moore and Tully Banta-Cain. And of course we may get to see some pass coverage skills from Patrick Willis.* The point is that it will take a team effort to contain the dynamic back.
Saints Passing Game
While Reggie Bush is certainly a key to the passing game, the Saints have a solid contingent of receivers who happen to be under performing this season. We all know the story of Marques Colston, but he is coming back to earth failing to surpass 70 yards receiving and only 2 total touchdowns on the year. Additionally, Devery Henderson has been virtually non-existent aside from 101 yards in Week 5. Presently Colston leads the team in receiving with 263 yards on 26 receptions, which is only slightly ahead of our very own Arnaz Battle. So while we can say Colston and Henderson are due, the 49ers bring a pair of corners that are performing quite well to date. If Clements and Harris can handle their business, it will allow the defense to cheat a little more in spying Reggie Bush, who I think could be the key to the Saints offensive performance this Sunday (shocking I know).
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other element of the Saints passing attack this year: My favorite 49er of the last decade, Eric Johnson. He leads the Saints in receptions and has stayed healthy so far this season. While I'd certainly hope he gets shutdown this weekend, I'm still rooting for him the rest of the time.
I was perusing Football Outsiders today and checked out the Saints' defensive rankings. They are currently 27th overall, 10th against the rush and 31st against the pass. Of course they opened the season giving up 41, 31 and 31 points successively in the first three weeks. This past week they gave up 259 yards and a touchdown to Leftwich and Harrington. The week before saw Matt Hasselbeck throw for 362 yards, 2 TDs and a pick in the Saints victory. The week before that saw the Panthers put up 155 passing yards behind David Carr. I'm planning on hopefully exchanging questions with Sunil over at Canal Street Chronicles and I definitely want to hear his take on the passing game struggles.
So what can we take from this? Well I think our defense can keep us in this game. It's hard to judge our performance Sunday considering Trent Dilfer did his best to hand the Giants 24 points. If the 49ers offense can avoid setting the Saints up in the red zone every drive, we could see a tightly contested defensive battle. Of course, a few turnovers and we could get waxed yet again. But that's just the way things roll with the 49ers this season. Thoughts?
***I'm throwing up a diary for this idea so answer there, but we need to come up with a nickname for Patrick Willis ASAP. More info in the diary to come.