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Winners and losers from the 49ers loss to the Saints: Kinlaw and Aiyuk impress

San Francisco’s first rounders showed up and showed out on Sunday

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers lost to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in a way that only frustrated fans more. Despite injuries, the Niners show that they can compete against the top teams. Because of injuries, the margin for error is razor-thin. One mistake is hard enough to overcome, but multiple slip-ups make it borderline impossible to win with how many backups are playing.

As the season goes along, positive performances are something we can latch on to. The rookies impressed on Sunday, as did a few other players. Let’s look at some of the winners and losers from the Saints game.

Winners

Brandon Aiyuk

Aiyuk is going to be a star. His inspector gadget arms allow him to catch passes that are a couple of inches from the ground, as we saw on an out route Sunday. On the pass where Aiyuk drew a pass interference call down the field, Aiyuk showed concentration and the ability to adjust to a pass on the fly. His athleticism speaks for itself, but we see why the 49ers traded up for Aiyuk, who finished the game with seven receptions for 75 yards. Four of those went for first downs, one went for a touchdown, and 33 of those yards came after the catch.

Every game, his quarterbacks have missed Aiyuk at some portion of the field. His box scores should be better.

Javon Kinlaw

Kinlaw has started to come alive during the past couple of weeks, and Sunday, he showed up in the stat sheet. Kinlaw was credited with 1.5 sacks, a QB hit, and three stops. He was disruptive, as you could see him throwing lineman out of the way and forcing either Saints quarterbacks or running backs to alter their path.

Kinlaw is never satisfied, and that type of attitude should lead to him being a great player. When a reporter asked Kinlaw if he was relieved after his first sack, he answered, “I mean, it’s just one. It’s just one. It’s just one.” Kinlaw knows he has a way to go to reach his potential, but the glimpses we’ve seen during the past three games lead you to believe his future is bright.

Jimmie Ward

It took the coaching staff a couple of games, but they remembered Ward’s versatility allows you to play Tarvarius Moore. On Sunday, Ward played 14 snaps in the slot and 11 snaps in the box while playing 32 snaps at free safety. Ward broke up one pass on an out route, he also added a run stop, and made his presence felt in that “eraser” role over the middle.

Ward did have a killer drop where he read Jameis Winston’s eyes, got in the throwing lane, and got two hands on the ball. He couldn’t hold on, and the Niners muffed the punt on the next play. It was good to see Ward active again. He was impressive.

Losers

Fred Warner/Dre Greenlaw

Warner allowed a touchdown where a Saints player picked him off. One false step did Warner in, and that was enough for the mistake. Warner also allowed a 20-yard gain in coverage and missed two tackles where Alvin Kamara turned those into first downs.

Greenlaw has struggled this season. As a run defender, his “trigger” compared to Kwon Alexander’s is night and day. That shows up in pass coverage at times, but it’s more evident when Greenlaw has to come downhill. Too often, he waits, lets the lineman get on him, and it’s bad news for the 49ers. That indecisiveness creates “traffic” for Warner, which makes life more difficult for the Niners star. Greenlaw has to play faster.

PFF has convinced fans that missed tackles and grades make Greenlaw better than Alexander, but this season we’ve seen the difference between the two. If we move to that wheel route that Kamara caught near the end zone, that was another play where Greenlaw was a half-second slow to diagnose what was going on, and, as a result, he couldn’t contest the throw.

Those are the plays Alexander made. Over the next six games, Greenlaw must prove he’s the guy to line up next to Warner. By hesitating, you’re making life harder on Warner, and he isn’t kept clean anymore to run freely and make tackles. Once he starts playing better, so will Warner.

The punt returners

Trent Taylor has been phased out of the offense. He ran one route on Sunday. As a returner, Taylor signaled for a fair catch; the ball landed two yards to the right of him. Because of that, the ball hit Ken Webster, and the Saints recovered. The score was 10-3 at the time, and San Francisco had scored on two of its first three possessions. That was one of the worst mistakes you’ll see as from a returner.

Richie James filled in for Taylor after that, and while the game was all but over, James muffed his final opportunity. The Saints muffed a couple of punts on the afternoon as well. After the game, Kyle Shanahan said the team would look into Aiyuk as a returner.

Nick Mullens

The expectations aren’t high for Mullens, but he still failed to meet them. Mullens finished with a completion percentage over expectation of -2.3, an estimated quarterback rating of 51.2, and only a 36% first down rate. As has been the case all season, receivers are open. As has been the case all season, the 49ers quarterbacks have failed to read the defense.

The Saints blitzed their slot cornerback five times, and it felt like he hit Mullens on each blitz. On a few of those plays, the cornerback would stare into the backfield, giving away that he was blitzing, but Mullens didn’t account for him. That threw off each of the 49ers plays and essentially wasted the drives.

Mullens struggled even when the Saints didn’t blitz. Both of his interceptions came when the Saints only rushed four defenders. There were too many opportunities left on the field on Sunday, and Mullens was a big reason why. Kendrick Bourne, Jordan Reed, and Aiyuk all bailed him out on multiple occasions. Is it Josh Johnson’s time? The 49ers have the bye week to figure out their quarterback situation.