In a rematch with the team that eliminated the Saints from the 2011 postseason, the Saints will this time host an incredibly good 49ers team in what figures to be a game between two hot teams. The Saints will without question need their very best to have any chance at being successful against an opponent that is complete in every facet of the game. The 49ers have very few weaknesses so this will not be easy, but I also have a feeling the Saints will come out ready for this one to play their best football of the season. Here's the five things I'm looking for in this game:
1. Will the Saints slow down the 49ers rushing attack?
This game pitts the 32nd run defense in the NFL against the #1 rushing attack in yards per game. That's right, the very best in the entire league running against the absolute worst defending it. That doesn't bode well. The offensive line of the 49ers is arguably the best in the league, and Frank Gore is a very good back behind them. The 49ers also top the league in yards per carry (5.5) and the Saints are second to last in yards per carry given up (5.1). So the 49ers should be able to line up in run formations and shove the ball repeatedly down the Saints' throats. This type of game is the reason the Saints invested so much in Broderick Bunkley and Curtis Lofton, so we'll see if they can come up with something special.
2. Will Vernon Davis continue to own the Saints?
I don't need to tell any Saints fan how covering Vernon Davis panned out last year. When the 49ers do pass, you know they'll be looking to exploit a safety or linebacker covering Davis pretty much all game long. I cringe at the thought, but hope the Saints' can make something happen.
3. How does Colin Kaepernick manage his first road start?
I'm actually a little relieved Kaepernick is the starter instead of Alex Smith, though I may live to regret saying that. While Kaepernick has a much better arm and is a more capable playmaker, this is also his second career start and his first in a hostile environment. I know Jim Harbaugh is starting him because he's attracted to the idea of a quarterback that's able to make the throws downfield that Alex Smith just doesn't give him. But with lack of experience can come mistakes, and with Kaepernick's arm I'm hoping it will tempt Harbaugh to take more risks with his play calling. Ultimately I'd rather lose with the Saints getting torched by Kaepernick than to see the 49ers commit repeatedly to the run. Why? Because I don't believe the Saints can stop them on the ground. Safe plays calls in this game, in my opinion, favor the 49ers. If Alex Smith was in the game, I believe you'd see the 49ers commit more singularly to the run. With Kaepernick in, I could see Harbaugh being tempted to air it out a little bit, and I'm hopeful the young phenom would make a costly mistake or two due to lack of experience.
4. How does the right tackle position hold up?
Bryce Harris is in line to most likely make his first career start as an undrafted rookie free agent. That's a disaster of sorts, when you consider the Saints are without starter Zach Strief (officially listed questionable - but rumors are he won't play) and backup veteran Charles Brown who's played well in his absence. Harris is a huge question mark. The 49ers are a scary pass rushing team and Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks. While Smith usually rushes from the left side, I did see him moved over in the Bears game last week and I wouldn't be surprised to see the 49ers do the same this week with such a young and untested new starter on the right side in Harris. I've theorized the Saints will use Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham more in protection to help keep Drew Brees clean, but that'll mean less options in the passing game.
5. Is Darren Sproles back, and if so, how do the Saints manage the reps they give out?
It seems clear that Travaris Cadet is the odd man out of the offensive rotation if Sproles is active. That said, with the way Chris Ivory has played I have to assume he'll get some reps, along with Mark Ingram, Thomas and of course Sproles. But how will they get distributed? I know the Saints will want to establish the run game, especially with Bryce Harris in the lineup, which will put more ask on Ingram and Ivory, but if the Saints become more one dimensional then Sproles and Thomas will see the lion share of snaps. It will be very intriguing to see how the Saints rotate these four in and out. I don't envy Carmichael, that's for sure. Four very good running backs is a nice problem to have, but it's tough to give them all the reps they deserve and use them each in the right situation.