The San Francisco 49ers are nine-point underdogs against the New Orleans Saints heading into Week 10. If the Niners are to pull off the upset, they’re going to need a handful of players to step up and start winning. Here are four players to watch ahead of Sunday’s matchup.
DT Javon Kinlaw
The Saints have the best offensive line in football, and I’m not sure it’s close. Drew Brees is rarely touched, and Alvin Kamara has gaping rushing lanes to run through. Some 49ers fans wanted the team to draft Cesar Ruiz this past draft. Now, he’s starting at right guard for New Orleans. Ruiz is the closest thing to a “weak link” along the Saints line. He’s given up two QB hits and 14 hurries on the season, per PFF.
The lightbulb is starting to come on for the 49ers’ first-round pick. Kinlaw had his most productive game as a pro from a “win” standpoint against the Seahawks. Kyle Shanahan said, “I thought Kinlaw had his best game last week, also. He’s playing very hard and only getting better.” The 49ers are going to need those wins to turn into QB hits or sacks against the Saints. Kinlaw should have the most favorable matchup going against Ruiz.
With Jaquiski Tartt out, the 49ers have turned to Harris at safety. The sixth-rounder from the 2018 draft has struggled. Harris has always been an aggressive run defender, and that aggression comes back to bite him occasionally. Harris has missed three tackles this season, per PFF, but his angles leave a lot to be desired.
Those angles have cost Harris in coverage, as he is too late to get out of his backpedal. That’s allowed opposing receivers to run by him for significant gains. He’s also given up two touchdowns in the past two games and has been fortunate only to allow three receptions. Robert Saleh has his safeties interchangeable. That’s left Harris as the deep safety at the most inopportune times. You have to imagine New Orleans will look to target Harris.
He must improve his help, tackling, and play under control against this Saints offense.
QB Nick Mullens
Shanahan said after the game that Mullens was not the reason the team lost. On Wednesday, right tackle Mike McGlinchey told reporters that “November and December make and break NFL seasons. We are still in position to make a run here.” If the 49ers are going to string wins together, Mullens must elevate talent around him. He’s going to have to make some plays, as he did against the Giants earlier this year.
On the season, Mullens is 22nd in EPA per play, 15th in success rate, 12th in completion percentage over expectation, but he’s 32nd in QBR—which accounts for sacks. Mullens has played well in terms of processing what the defense is doing, and some of the sacks he’s taken weren’t his fault. He’ll need to be on his A-game against this New Orleans defense. The Saints are fourth in adjusted sack rate. If Mullens crumbles under pressure in the way he did against Philly, San Francisco won’t have a chance. Good luck, BDN.
CB Emmanuel Moseley
Moseley has been victim to some of the most precise throws during the past couple of weeks. DK Metcalf got the best of him, and the Packers Devante Adams scored on Moseley as well. Moseley has shown he’s a competitor. He did break up two passes against each receiver, but it was too little too late by then.
Drew Brees is still an above-average quarterback, but he’s attacking defenses much different than Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Brees is averaging a league-worst 5.6 air yards per attempt. On the season, he’s thrown the ball over 20 yards only 12 times on 288 attempts. Compare that to Rodgers, who has thrown the ball over 20 yards 24 times on 293 attempts...to the right side of the field.
Moseley shouldn’t have to worry about the deep threat, but he must be ready to drive on those underneath routes and intermediate crossers against Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. That’s where the Saints offense does most of their damage.