Struggling 49ers come off bye, host Saints
The San Francisco 49ers play host to the New Orleans Saints in Week 9 of the 2016 NFL season. The 49ers haven't won a game since Week 1 and not many of those losses have been close. The team is coming off a bye week, which could not have come fast enough for most 49ers fans. The up-and-down Saints fly back to California for the second time this year with hopes of the same outcome. The 3-4 Saints beat the San Diego Chargers in Week 4 for their first win of the season.
The Saints have one of the best offenses in the NFL and will be playing one of the worst defenses in the entire league. The Saints lead the NFL with 326.9 passing yards per game. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees ranks near the top of the NFL in nearly every passing category. On paper, this should be another huge week for one of the best passers in NFL history.
Brees has completed 214 of 308 passes for 2,366 yards. He is completing 69.5 percent of his attempts with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions and has a passer rating of 104.7. What has been very impressive about Brees' season up to this point has been the inconsistency along the offensive line and that his best receiver is a rookie. Michael Thomas, a rookie out of Ohio State, leads the team with 42 receptions for 500 yards and three touchdowns.
The 49ers' pass defense has actually been solid this season. They have allowed only 222 yards a game through the air, which is ranked seventh best in the league. The unit gets into trouble in the red zone, where the defense has given up 15 touchdowns, which ranks 26th in the NFL. For a secondary that has two former first-round picks, cornerback Jimmie Ward and free safety Eric Reid, playing significant roles, allowing that many points is not good.
The Saints will face the NFL's worst run defense with a question mark at their running back position. Starter Mark Ingram was benched in last week's win over the Seattle Seahawks after he lost a fumble for the second week in a row. Tim Hightower stepped in and rushed for 102 yards.
“We did exactly what we needed to do and what we wanted to do. We knew we had to sustain drives and control the line of scrimmage. I think we did that,” said Hightower after replacing Ingram.
Saints head coach Sean Payton called Hightower's performance “tough and gutsy.” How Payton uses his running backs against the 49ers will be interesting to watch. The 49ers run defense allows 185.1 yards a game. This is over 40 yards more than the 31st-ranked Cleveland Browns, who give up 143.8 yards rushing a game.
The Saints' defense, especially the secondary, has been decimated with injuries this season. The unit lost both starting cornerbacks, Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams, in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively. Breaux fractured his fibula and Williams suffered a concussion that cost him the season. This is a major reason for the pass defense to be ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards against per game at 286.7. The Saints' secondary was one of the worst in NFL history in 2015, when the unit gave up 45 touchdown passes. One bright spot in 2016 is the unit has only allowed nine touchdowns through seven games. That is impressive for a secondary that plays with two college free agents, Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris, and journeyman B.W. Webb.
The 49ers' offense, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, should attack the Saints secondary on Sunday. The problem with that philosophy is the 49ers have the worst passing attack in the NFL. The 49ers only pass for 161.4 yards a game and are already on their second starting quarterback of the season.
Head coach Chip Kelly puts the onus on his coaching staff for the poor play of the offense. “That's on us,” Kelly said. “Our job is to put our players in position to make plays, and we're not doing a good enough job of that right now.”
Getting a major offensive weapon back for the game against the Saints could help the 49ers offense. Running back Carlos Hyde, who injured his shoulder in the Week 6 loss to the Bills and did not dress in Week 7, should be deemed fit to play. Hyde has six rushing touchdowns this season and will be facing a Saints rushing defense that is giving up 4.3 yards per carry and has allowed 12 rushing touchdowns.