The San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints square off this week, which means we are back with another week of cross-blog content. Yesterday morning, Canal Street Chronicles and I put together a look at why each of our teams will win. Today, we're taking a look at under the radar players on both sides of the ball. First up, our friends from Canal Street Chronicles.
It's difficult to pick someone on the Saints' offense that would qualify as "under the radar" since their offense has been so prolific and subsequently receives a lot of national attention. Even their fifth round draft pick, wide receiver Kenny Stills, has received a plenty of attention lately for his big play ability. So as a result, I'm going to be selecting two VERY unsexy players, but guys that get it done nonetheless. Zach Strief, the Saints' right tackle, has bounced back after an injury-plagued 2012 season. According to Pro Football Focus, Strief is the 2nd most efficient starting offensive tackle in league in pass protection. He's done an amazing job protecting Drew Brees, allowing just one sack and one hit so far this season. Additionally, Streif has been effective as a run blocker this season, something that cannot be said about the New Orleans offensive line as a whole.
Next, is fullback, Jed Collins. Yes, I picked a fullback. Shun me. Last week against the Cowboys, the Saints were able to run the ball effectively throughout the game for the first time all season. Look back, and in almost all of their big runs you will see Collins leading the way for Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas. Collins will need to display more of this against the best inside linebacker duo in the league of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Running against these guys will be not be easy, but another strong performance by Collins will make it MUCH easier.
On the defensive side of the ball, Junior Galette would have been an easy decision had this been last season. But after coming into a starting role, Galette has deservedly received some praise for his strong work as a pass rusher en route to five sacks and six QB hits so far this season. As a result, I'm going to go with a pair of second year guys who have really stepped up for the defense. Akiem Hicks, the 2012 third round pick from the Canadian School, Regina, has been able to convert his raw talent into on-field production. According to Pro Football Focus, Hicks has the third highest run stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends (a run stop is a tackle in the run game that constitutes an offensive failure).
Corey White has really stepped up after a season-ending injury struck Patrick Robinson early this season. White has been targeted 21 times so far this season, and has allowed just a 57.1 completion percentage when thrown at while defending three of those passes. Playing in the slot, and wide both right and left, White has held his own allowing QBs just a 79.9 rating when targeting him. He made a really nice pass breakup last week and should have had an interception, so we'll have to wait and see if he can get his hands on the ball again this week.
The 49ers offense has been loaded with question marks in the passing game. The team is among the league leaders on the ground, but their passing attack ranks dead last. The 49ers best chance to win this game will be by establishing the ground game, but the 49ers will still have to figure out ways to move the ball for larger chunks. Five or six yard runs are great, but the team also needs to be able to pick up double-digit chunks at a time.
And yet, it might be a fullback who is the guy to watch if the 49ers offense is going to get on track. Bruce Miller was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft and converted from defensive end to fullback. Although the fullback is becoming a thing of the past for many teams, Miller has been a key cog in the 49ers offense. When the team has found great success this year, it has been thanks in part to Miller. The team uses him in a role similar to what they did with tight end Delanie Walker the last two seasons. Miller is not quite as athletic as Walker, but he is taking to the role quite well. He has developed into a strong run-blocker, and is improving as a pass catcher.
Of course, that also makes it confusing when the team does not use him quite as frequently. The 49ers passing game needs some kind of spark. While Mario Manningham is the guy likely to get as many opportunities as anybody this Sunday, keep an eye on Miller. He won't lead the team in yards or receptions, but if the 49ers win, he'll have made some big plays
The 49ers face a tall order against the Saints offense, which means the secondary play will be huge. The 49ers have a fairly high profile group of players on defense, but they are adding a new player to the mix on Sunday. The 49ers signed cornerback Eric Wright in August, and immediately placed him on the NFI list. He was activated to the 53-man roster last week, but was inactive against the Panthers. This week, the 49ers released cornerback Perrish Cox, and Wright is going to take over Cox's role as the dime back and back-up nickel back.
The 49ers are likely to spend a sizable chunk of the game in their nickel and dime defenses. The Saints have three solid wide receivers in Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Lance Moore, but they can spread it out even more with tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. Wright would likely be tasked with covering one of the receivers, but he might end up having to deal with the speedy Sproles or the monster Graham. Whatever the case, he should be busy in his first game as an active member of the team.