Our 49ers.com staff writers break down San Francisco's next matchup, a Week 9 home game against the New Orleans Saints.
Let's dive into the keys to the game in this "Four Downs" preview of the 49ers first contest following the bye, presented by SunPower.
1st Down: Which 49ers player are you most excited to watch?@Joe_Fann: Eli Harold
Harold is likely to get another start with Aaron Lynch (ankle) out for Sunday's contest. The second-year pass-rusher will play a crucial role in San Francisco's attempt to limit Drew Brees's success through the air. New Orleans' quarterback has been sacked 11 times through seven games, and it will be vital for San Francisco's defense to add to that total on Sunday. The 49ers currently rank 25th in total sacks with 13. There's no better time for Harold to get the first of his career than against a future Hall of Famer.
@TaylorPrice: Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick's third start should be the best matchup for the sixth-year pro. New Orelans' defense ranks 31st in points allowed per game (30.71) and 28th in passing yards allowed per game (287). If there was ever a time for Kaepernick to spark San Francsico's 32nd-ranked passing attack, this is the week. Kaepernick has led the 49ers in rushing in back-to-back games, but he hasn't topped 187 passing yards in either start. How will Chip Kelly's gameplan attack a vulnerable pass defense? I'm excited to see this unfold.2nd Down: Which Saints WR is most important to stop?
@Joe_Fann: Brandin Cooks
If you have to stop one of Brees's weapons, it has to be the Saints home-run hitter. Cooks leads New Orleans' pass-catchers with five touchdowns on the season, two of which have gone for more than 87 yards. The longest of the two was a 98-yard score back in Week 1. The third-year pro was taken by the Saints in the first round (20th overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft, in large part, due to his 4.33 speed coming out of Oregon State. I'll be curious to see who Jim O'Neil matches up with Cooks. Jimmie Ward's comparable speed makes him a candidate to cover the Saints top playmaker.
@TaylorPrice: Michael Thomas
Cooks is a great choice as well. But I'll take the rookie out of "The Ohio State University." Thomas leads the Saints in catches (42) and is one behind Cooks for the team lead in targets (55). At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, it's imperative that Ward and Tramaine Brock limit Thomas' touches, especially in the red zone. Thomas's longest catch is 28 yards. He's more likely to be a third-down target than run by you for a deep ball like Cooks.
3rd Down: Who will score the 49ers first touchdown?
@Joe_Fann: Torrey Smith
New Orleans has five defensive backs on Injured Reserve. Saints cornerbacks Sterling Moore (abdomen) and Delvin Breaux (fibula) are questionable in Week 9. Those are all factors working in Smith's favor on Sunday. In addition, the wideout has had the bye to rest his injured back and wasn't listed on the team's injury report at any point this week. Kaepernick connected with Smith on a 53-yard touchdown in Week 6. A matchup against New Orleans' 28th-ranked pass defense should provide ample opportuniy for Smith to break out again in Week 9.
I could see DuJuan Harris punching the 49ers into the end zone if Pierre Garçon is inactive with his shoulder injury. Both Mike Davis and Shaun Draughn supplied the 49ers with their only touchdowns in Week 7 (Davis with his first career touchdown run and Draughn with his first touchdown catch), but Harris could be in line for the most touches this week. All this being said, I foresee Kaepernick keeping the ball on a zone-read play and taking it the distance. If you want me to a put a number on it - let's go with 18. After all, the 49ers signal-caller is 18 yards away from reaching 2,000 for his career. How sweet would it be to see his 2k-total result in a TD?
4th Down: What is your bold prediction?
@Joe_Fann: Quinton Patton scores his first touchdown of the season
I just outlined why the 49ers should find opportunitites in the passing game. I do think this will be a big week for Smith, but there's no reason why Patton can't join the party as well. Patton's 19 receptions are second-most on the team, and the fourth-year pro has 31 targets on the season. A 65-yard performance with one touchdown is well within reason for Patton against New Orleans.
@TaylorPrice: DeForest Buckner records two sacks
I'm thinking purely podcast mojo on this answer. "DeFo" was a gracious guest on this week's 49ers Radio podcast. Therefore, I believe he's going to record another two-sack game like he did in Week 6 in Buffalo. The Saints have allowed 11 sacks this season, which is tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Drew Brees gets the ball out quick which makes it tough to get to him. But I'm expecting a big game from Buckner, who could very well record a sack on one of his father's favorite players.