Niners Nation: What's up with Mark Ingram? Has he finally figured something out? What can you tell us about the Saints running game in general?
Canal Street Chronicles: Ingram's play in New Orleans has been plagued by inconsistency and injuries, but the light started coming on for him towards the end of last season. In 2013 he had 78 total rushing attempts for 386 yards, 4.9 yards per carry (YPC) and one touchdown. What is remarkable is that 249 of those total yards came in the Saints last four games, in which he averaged 5.7 YPC. Those games included top defenses Seattle and Carolina.
There are several factors that have led to Ingram's recent surge: the Saints as a team have really committed themselves to running the ball more this year. They have also been good at it, as they are tied for second in the league with 4.8 yards per rush and tied for first in rushing touchdowns (12). After missing a few games yet again with a broken wrist, Ingram has been the recipient of more carries due to injuries to Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson. He has taken full advantage: In New Orleans' last two games he rushed 54 times for 272 yards (5.0 YPC). It may have taken him some time, but the fourth-year running back seems to be finally adjusting to the pro game, showing more patience, hitting the hole with more determination once it opens. Last but not least, Ingram is in a contract year, which may be contributing to him running with more passion before hitting the free agency market this offseason.
NN: How is Drew Brees looking this season? Greg Cosell said he's not quite the same guy as in the past. What do Saints fans think?
CSC: This has been a really interesting and touchy subject in the Who Dat Nation in 2014. Brees has set the bar really high in his nine year tenure in New Orleans, so any semblance of a drop-off was inevitably going to generate a lot of buzz: the negative kind. Through eight games in 2013, Brees had 21 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and a QB rating of 108.1. So far this year he has 15 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and a rating of 97.1. There has clearly been a slight dip in his game and one speculative explanation for the lower number of passing touchdowns is that Brees has been affected by an oblique injury he suffered during the preseason. This could explain why he has had so much trouble throwing the deep ball. The good news for the section of Saints fans that is freaking out is that this isn't the first season in which Brees started slowly but eventually hit his stride and finished with a flurry. In New Orleans' last two games, the Saints signal-caller completed 51 of 66 passes (77.3%) for 608 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception. Maybe his oblique is finally healing up.
NN: Is Jimmy Graham officially back to 100 percent? How can we expect the Saints to use him against the 49ers on Sunday? According to Pro Football Focus, he has spent 46% of snaps on the line in a more traditional TE location, while last year he was in that spot 33.3% of the time. Have the Saints adjusted his role at all?
CSC: If the last two games are any indication, Jimmy Graham is indeed back to 100% health status. Three games ago against Detroit, Graham had no catches on two targets, as he was mostly used as a decoy. However, against Green Bay, Graham caught five passes on six targets for 59 yards and a touchdown. Thursday night last week against Carolina, he caught all seven passes thrown his way for 83 yards and a touchdown.
With New Orleans running the ball more this year, the Saints have used their 13 personnel package (1 running back, 3 tight ends) often. In those cases, Graham has often lined up as the slot tight end and he has actually made an attempt (albeit feeble) to improve his run-blocking. That said the Saints have still used him on the outside like a wide receiver, which is without contest what he excels at.
With San Francisco missing the likes of NaVorro Bowman and maybe Patrick Willis, the Saints are likely to used Graham in seam routes and post routes over the middle, trying to match him up on linebackers Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite. Borland and Wilhoite are good, but they certainly are no Bowman and Willis.
NN: What does your injury report mean for Sunday?
CSC: The Saints most impactful injuries for this game are all on offense. I spoke earlier about how good the Saints running game has been, with Mark Ingram carrying the load as of late. Well, Ingram hurt his shoulder in the Panthers game and is questionable for Sunday's game. He practiced on a limited basis though, and claimed he would be good to go. So having him listed as questionable might be a little bit of gamesmanship from the Saints. With Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson definitely out for this game, were Ingram to sit this one out as well, the Saints would have to rely on backups Travaris Cadet and Edwin Baker, a former seventh round draft pick of the Chargers in 2012, who was recently brought up from the practice squad. Or they could just pass 65 times, which I'm sure the Niners would take any day.
Another significant injury is that of right tackle Zach Strief. He is listed as questionable with a chest injury, although the Saints had reported that he hurt his back against Carolina on Thursday last week. If Strief can't go, offensive tackle Bryce Harris will likely be his replacement. Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State, interestingly made his NFL debut for the Saints against the 49ers in the Superdome on November 25. 2012.
Former 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin is questionable with a strained MCL, but his replacement Tim Lelito has actually been somewhat of an upgrade. Wide receiver Robert Meachem, who has been mostly used as a blocker, is also listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
The lone listed defensive injury is to linebacker David Hawthorne who was having a good season before injuring his hand against the Packers. The Saints defense hasn't seemed to miss him much, with backup Ramon Humber acquitting himself quite well.
NN: It appears Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan are the Saints top two pass rushers. What can you tell us about the Saints pass rush?
CSC: Junior Galette and Cam Jordan truly emerged last season, when they had 12 and 12.5 sacks respectively. Just prior to the start of the season, Galette signed a contract extension with the Saints worth 41.5 million dollars with 23 million guaranteed and did not exactly live up to that lofty contract earlier this year. In the past three games however, Galette has stepped up his game and now sits at 6 sacks for the year, on pace to equal his sack total of 2013. Jordan has four sacks so far and has also been playing better as of late. Jordan usually lines up at the left defensive end position and is mostly a five-technique specialist. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been more creative with Galette, lining him up at the five-tech on the right side. At times he'll have him at the three-technique outside the left guard's shoulder, then either drop him in coverage or run a stunt where Galette eventually ends up rushing on the outside of the left tackle, while a blitzing defensive back like safety Kenny Vaccaro at the five-tech position will rush inside and try to get to the quarterback.
Ryan, as is customary, has blitzed a lot this year. However, against savvy, veteran quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, he has been more conservative this year, putting seven in coverage and rushing only four. My guess is that on Sunday, the Saints will send the house at Kaepernick early, to see how he handles it. If they get burned a couple of times, they'll then sit back and make him go through his progressions.
Bonus: Prediction on how this game plays out
CSC: This one is tough to predict for me, because the Saints have been excellent at home with Payton on the sidelines, yet San Francisco under Harbaugh has always played the Saints extremely tough. A 49ers victory on Sunday would not surprise me in the least, but I think that New Orleans' defense is slowly starting to find its footing and will eventually be the deciding factor in this game. I see the contest as a tight affair throughout, with the Saints defense creating a late turnover that either seals the game for the Saints or gives Brees an ultimate possession to narrowly win a close one. My score prediction would be something like Saints 23 - Niners 17.