The San Francisco 49ers look to get back in the win column this Sunday when they travel south for a crucial road game against the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers were defeated by the Carolina Panthers, 10-9, and will now face one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL.
Here are the top 10 storylines to track for Sunday.
10. Return to "NOLA"
It’s a familiar scene for the 49ers. The home of the Saints is where the 49ers ended the 2012 season, a loss in Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco also played there in the regular season and won 31-21. The mixed bag of memories won’t quite matter in this matchup. The 49ers have moved on from the Super Bowl and they’ll have their hands full against a versatile Saints offense and an improved defensive group. The biggest benefit from playing so many recent games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is that players and coaches know in advance how loud it will be. The 49ers need to get off to a fast start to mitigate the deafening sounds in the dome.
9. Rob Ryan's Defense
New Orleans struggled on defense last year and fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo because of it. The team’s personnel looks mostly the same from 2012, but the production has been much improved. It’s an exotic-looking defense, according to 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin. The Saints will change up formations, blitz from unlikely places and alter their identity on almost a weekly basis. At home, New Orleans has allowed an average of 15 points per game. No opponent has scored more than 17 points against the Saints.
8. Defending Graham
Don’t lose sight of No. 80 this weekend. Jimmy Graham puts up receiver-like numbers and even lines up as a wideout at times. New Orleans’ team leader in receptions (54), receiving yards (805) and touchdown catches (10) is a mismatch nightmare. He’s not just an elite tight end; he’s an elite play-maker in the NFL. Graham has 12 catches of 20-plus yards and is averaging 89.4 yards per game. The 49ers will rely on All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, plus safety Donte Whitner, to stop Graham’s production. It’s no easy task, but the 49ers know that Graham is Drew Brees’ favorite target. Graham has been targeted 80 times by Brees across nine games.
7. "LaMike" Usage
Kyle Williams was waived earlier this week on the heels of LaMichael James’ first game as the 49ers punt return man. James, a second-round draft pick in 2012, also carried the ball once on offense against the Panthers. James figures to be in San Francisco’s game plans in the coming weeks and has been a team player all season, despite only playing in three games. James has big-play availability and offensive coordinator Greg Roman noted that he has similar vision to the team’s star runner, Frank Gore. James wants to do more for his team, but has been doing whatever the coaches ask of him on a weekly basis. It’ll be interesting to see how James is used on the same field as a similar player on the sideline, Saints running back Darren Sproles.
6. "Kap" Bounce-Back
It’s the talk of the Bay Area. How will Colin Kaepernick respond? Those who know him best say the 49ers quarterback has reviewed the game film like a coach and is focused on making the necessary plays to help his team win. Stats go by the wayside. Kaepernick is coming off a career-low 91-yard passing performance against Carolina, but he’s not concerned about outside critiques. Instead, Kaepernick has hunkered down with his coaches and is poised to bounce back against an aggressive defense. The 49ers quarterback was sacked six times last week, but Kaepernick’s coaches have noted they can be more creative when it comes to defeating pressure with screens and quick passes. Kaepernick’s demeanor remains unchanged on a weekly basis. Let’s see how he attacks an opportunity to quiet the critics.
5. Aldon's Role
According to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, we will see more of Aldon Smith this week. Brees should be on notice. Smith was able to collapse the pocket and get in the backfield in his dozen plays on the field last week. He’s expected to have the same nickel role and could see action on base downs with Dan Skuta limited in practice this week with a foot injury. Smith’s return has also pushed Ahmad Brooks to play some of his best football. Although Fangio noted that Brooks has been an impact player the last three years, the hybrid pass rusher is coming off a two-sack outing and looked like a relentless force last week against the Panthers. Couple Brooks’ emergence with Smith’s All-Pro ability and the 49ers will have a puncher’s chance against the high-powered Saints offense.
4. Manningham Involved
Mario Manningham made plays in his return to the field last week. That’s what he wanted to do all along. Manningham led the 49ers with 30 receiving yards, but by no means was he satisfied with the performance. Manningham wants to win and, more importantly, he wants to be a factor in helping the team achieve success. Manningham was limited in practice this week, but judging by the comments of his coordinator, the sixth-year receiver’s knee simply needed some rest. Manningham returned to the field for the first time since Week 16 of last season. The 49ers will rely on him greatly once again this week. In a road matchup against the Saints in 2012, Manningham caught five of the passes thrown his way for 69 yards, including a 40-yard deep ball. The long-ball threat of Manningham will remain a key for the 49ers in the closing weeks of the regular season.
3. Health of Davis, Reid
The blue jersey has been well chronicled this year. When a player is in the blue uniform at practice, it’s hands-off. The non-contact jersey is for players coming off injury, and it was worn this week by Vernon Davis and Eric Reid. Both starters are coming off concussions against the Panthers. Reid’s was his second in a nine-week period. Davis described his concussion as “mild,” but both situations continue to be monitored up until game time. Both players were cleared for non-contact work in practice but will need to pass the NFL’s mandated concussion protocol before they can be cleared to play. If they pass the contact test, both will return to their respective roles. If not, expect rookie tight end Vance McDonald and veteran free safety Craig Dahl to step in and contribute.
2. Get Gore Going
This could be a key to the game every week. And, frankly, it is. Gore is the heart and soul of the 49ers offense and, when he’s rolling, so is the team. Gore rushed for 83 yards against the Saints last season and he’s been rushing for 70 or more yards in San Francisco’s last seven contests. Gore remains one of the best interior runners in the league and he’s not alone in producing out of the backfield. Besides the aforementioned James, third-year runner Kendall Hunter can provide a similar impact when Gore needs a breather. It’s worth noting that opponent have averaged five yards per rush against the Saints in 2013.
1. Stopping the Brees
The Saints feature the league’s No. 2 scoring offense (29.4 points per game) and it’s largely because the quarterback conducts a passing symphony on a weekly basis. New Orleans racked up 40 first downs last week, an NFL record. It’s remarkable to see how Brees is able to share the wealth and get the ball out to the open receiver. He doesn’t care who gets the glory; Brees just wants to avoid pressure, move the chains and score points. Brees ranks second in the league in passing yards (3,064), passing touchdowns (25) and quarterback rating (108.9) – all of which come behind the NFL’s likely MVP in Denver Broncos signal-caller Peyton Manning. Brees has familiarity in the Saints offensive system and continues to be a red-hot passer with Sean Payton back on the sideline and calling plays. Bowman noted that Brees will be aggressive on 50-50 throws and, if that’s the case, the 49ers can’t afford to drop any potential takeaways. San Francisco capitalized in the 2012 meeting with a pair of pick-six touchdowns from Brooks and Whitner. The 14 points proved to be the difference in a 10-point win.