The San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans square off this Sunday in a pretty big game for a pair of 4-4 teams. The 49ers are looking to snap a 2-game losing streak and get their offense on track. The Saints have a small lead over the Carolina Panthers at the top of the NFC South and will look to build on that.
We'll be talking with J.R. Ella from Canal Street Chronicles over the course of the week to help each fan base get a better handle on the opposing team. Today, we look at under the radar players on each team.
Saints "Under the Radar" Players
WR Kenny Stills - Entering his second year in the league, wide receiver Kenny Stills has quietly been having a significant impact on the Saints receiving game. Stills has been overshadowed by the likes of tight end Jimmy Graham, rookie wideout Brandin Cooks and veteran receiver Marques Colston. He was also slowed down by injuries earlier this season, but in the Saints last three games, Stills has 14 catches (on 17 targets) for 232 yards (16.6 yards per reception) and a touchdown. With defenses focusing on Graham, Cooks and Colston, Stills has been reaping the benefits of one-on-one coverages and favorable matchups against linebackers. More importantly, he has been getting open, which is a sure way to get quarterback Drew Brees' attention.
S Rafael Bush - Bush's story with the 2014 Saints is an interesting one: a restricted free agent prior to the season, the Atlanta Falcons actually signed him to an offer sheet, which the Saints matched to keep him in New Orleans. Bush seemingly wanted out, with the Saints having acquired high-priced safety Jairus Byrd. Lo and behold, Byrd gets hurt, lands on the injured reserve list and Bush is now starting at safety alongside Kenny Vaccaro. Through eight games, he is second on the team with 42 total tackles (35 solo), two tackles for loss and three passes defended. He has solidified a spot that many thought would be a critical weakness for the Saints after Byrd was lost for the year.
TE Josh Hill - Who? So when we said "under the radar," you probably didn't think I was going to dust off a stealthy tight end no one has ever heard of right? Hill is an undrafted free agent tight end out of Idaho State, who signed with the Saints back in 2013. Although he has been primarily used as a blocker, Hill has been a bit of a "receiving curve ball" for the Saints. He is currently second on the team in receiving touchdown with three, behind only the much more heralded Jimmy Graham who has five, and ahead of the likes of Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills. In the few instances when opposing teams have somehow been able to cover all the Saints primary receiving threats, Hill has often been the last resort option for quarterback Drew Brees, and he has delivered.
49ers "Under the Radar" Players
C Marcus Martin - The 49ers drafted Martin in the third round of this year's draft. He joined the team coming off a dislocated kneecap injury, and was expected to develop behind starting center Daniel Kilgore. In Week 7, Kilgore suffered a broken ankle that ended his season. The 49ers had a Week 8 bye, and by Week 9, Martin was in the starting lineup. He was considered one of the top two or three centers in the draft, and some people even thought he might secure the starting center job sooner than he has. Kilgore could still get back into the mix next season, but it would not surprise me if Martin was the starter for the foreseeable future.
WR Stevie Johnson - In Buffalo, Johnson was the Bills number one receiver. In San Francisco he is the fourth wide receiver in terms of snap count, and that has dropped him off the radar outside the Bay Area. In spite of that role, he is the most effective receiver on the team, ahead of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd. He leads the team in yards per route run, and is among the top five in the NFL in that stat. 49ers fans wonder why he does not see more snaps, but he makes the most of his opportunities when is on the field.
LB Chris Borland - Like Martin, the 49ers drafted Borland in the third round of this year's. The team lost NaVorro Bowman to a knee injury, and the team wanted to bring in some competition for Michael Wilhoite. Borland was unable to secure the starting job next to Patrick Willis, but he became a big part of the special teams units. In Week 6, Patrick Willis suffered a toe injury, and Borland moved into the lineup in his place. Borland started Week 7 against Denver and Week 9 against St. Louis. Willis is a question mark this week, and Borland is coming off a huge game against the Rams. He finished the game with somewhere between 17 and 22 tackles (depending on ESPN, PFF or 49ers stats). He can struggle in pass coverage, but he has been strong against the run. It will be interesting to see how much Drew Brees goes after him in the passing game.