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Position-by-position grades from the 49ers tough victory against the Saints

The 49ers offense struggled against a reinforced Saints defensive front, but the Niners defense stepped up.

Jauan Jennings New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 49ers are all alone atop the NFC West after shutting out the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon. While San Francisco’s offense struggled to finish drives against a New Orleans defense that returned several key starters from injury, the Niners' defense made several impressive red zone stands to shut out the Saints for the first time since 2001.

Here are position-by-position grades from the win:

Quarterbacks: D+

Jimmy Garoppolo recorded his fewest yards per attempt in a game since 2020, but he avoided any turnovers. He did throw an interception that was negated by a defensive penalty, but that pick was influenced by the illegal contact throwing Ray-Ray McCloud off his route.

The Saints' defense played very well on Sunday. Garoppolo’s limitations prevented him from carrying the offense, but he was luckily able to avoid worst-case scenarios. He missed Christian McCaffrey in the red zone twice, which likely cost the Niners at least one touchdown. He also made several dangerous throws that New Orleans failed to capitalize against.

Garoppolo did deliver a beautiful throw to Brandon Aiyuk that was tipped at the last moment on a great play by Paulson Adeebo, but his overall performance was clearly below-average.

Running backs: B-

The 49ers running backs struggled early, leading Kyle Shanahan to lean on the passing game, but that was more due to the offensive line’s struggles than the backs themselves. McCaffrey had his most pedestrian game since he was acquired (just 2.9 yards per carry and 4.3 yards per reception), but he also lost a touchdown (and possibly two) to Garoppolo’s misreads in the red zone.

Still, Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason were both very productive, particularly in crunch time. They combined for 60 yards on 12 carries, and if a bad downfield holding call on George Kittle did not call back a 32-yard touchdown run by Mitchell, the Niners backs as a group would have averaged more than five yards per carry.

Tight ends: D+

The holding call on Kittle called back a touchdown run, but I have watched the replay several times, and I still am unsure what the refs saw on that play. Kittle caught three of his four targets for 26 yards and was the only tight end targetted. Needless to say, it was an underwhelming performance, given how heavily the Niners leaned on passing.

Wide receivers: B

Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings consistently generated separation all game long. Aiyuk led the team with 65 receiving yards and would have had a lot more if not for Adeebo’s great pass breakup. Jennings caught six of his seven targets for 49 yards, including a touchdown. He also generated excellent separation on the Niners' final pass of the game, which converted a key third down.

Deebo Samuel had another performance where he seemed to disappear, but he still managed to make a big play, hauling in a 20-yard reception to highlight his three-catch afternoon. Ray-Ray McCloud also caught his only target of the day for 12 yards.

Offensive line: D

Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport are really good defensive linemen, but the Niners' frontline blockers needed to do a better job containing the Saints' front four. Garoppolo was under constant pressure, and while the Niners signal-caller has a tendency to put himself in bad positions in the pocket, that was rarely the case on Sunday.

The line fared better, blocking for the run, than the pass but still left a lot to be desired. Trent Williams was excellent as always and is the only thing keeping this unit from an F.

Defensive line: B+

Nick Bosa did not record a sack until the Saints' final offensive play on fourth-and-goal, but he was causing problems for Andy Dalton (or Taysom Hill) all day long. PFF credited Bosa with five pressures. He did commit an unacceptable roughing the passer penalty, hitting Dalton well after he released a throw.

Samson Ebukam was second on the team with four pressures per PFF and recovered a fumble, but no one else on the line recorded more than one. Against a Saints offense with a run-first attack, though, that’s not the end of the world. Drake Jackson and T.Y. McGill each made a tackle for loss, and the Niners line clogged up Alvin Kamara’s rushing lanes all game. Frankly, against an offense like New Orleans’, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will probably take a little less pressure on the quarterback if it prevents them from getting beat by screens.

Linebackers: A+

Fred Warner has been on another level the past few weeks. He racked up seven tackles, a pair of passes defended, and a forced fumble on Sunday, but even those impressive numbers undersell how good he was. Warner received the best PFF grade on defense, and the eye test backed that up.

While Warner was the star of the afternoon, both Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair had good performances as well. They both received above-average PFF grades and combined for nine tackles. Greenlaw also recovered a fumble.

Cornerbacks: B-

Mooney Ward continued looking like an excellent top corner, surrendering just 11 yards on five targets. However, the rest of the 49ers' cornerbacks were much less effective. Jimmie Ward had another passable game as the nickel corner, but Deommodore Lenoir struggled mightily.

The Saints lacked the quarterback and receiving talent to truly take advantage of Lenoir’s shortcomings, but the Niners will not get away with that next week against the Dolphins.

Safeties: B+

As has become custom, the 49ers combined the boom/bust of Talanoa Hufanga with Tashaun Gipson’s steady play. Hufanga was responsible for one of the Saints' long completions but led the team with nine tackles and delivered the hit that forced Kamara’s second fumble of the day. Considering the Saints were already inside the Niners’ two, Hufanga’s play likely prevented a touchdown.

Gipson has a tendency to become invisible for long stretches of the game. It’s hard to tell whether that’s because he’s doing a good job in coverage or because he lacks Hufanga’s ability to find the ball. That said, I give him the benefit of the doubt since the defense completed a shutout.

Special teams: B+

Robbie Gould made all of his kicks, including a 46-yarder, and the Saints did not have any notable returns. Mitch Wishnowsky pinned the Saints inside their own 20 twice but also only managed a 45-yard punt from the Niners' endzone that netted just 34 yards and let the Saints start a possession inside San Francisco’s 40.