The New Orleans Saints come into town this Sunday, which carries with it some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is that a depleted defense, working without the services of outside linebacker Aaron Lynch and cornerback Rashard Robinson, will have to fight against the future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and an electric Saints offense.
The good news is that the 49ers’ offense will have arguably their easiest matchup all year against a lowly Saints defense that is surrendering 397 yards per game, just 10 less than the scoffed-at San Francisco unit.
It won’t be smooth sailings for the 49ers, but if the 49ers have any shot of snapping their six-game losing streak, these are the players who need to show up on Sunday.
Let’s start with an obvious assessment: To win games in the NFL, you need to have good play from your quarterback. That’s why Sunday’s biggest key to winning lies on the shoulders of Colin Kaepernick.
When facing the gun-slinging Drew Brees and his New Orleans’ offense, you have to come prepared for a shootout. The Seattle Seahawks learned the hard way that a stout defense alone isn’t enough to contain Brees and his electric receiving corps, led by Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and the dynamic rookie Michael Thomas.
But to date, Kaepernick hasn’t been able to muster up anything close to resembling the type of coherent offense needed to out-duel the future Hall of Famer in Brees.
If San Francisco wants to steal this win, Kaepernick is gonna have to turn in his first solid game of the season. Luckily for him, a beatable Saints defense awaits.
The Saints are one of the few defenses in the NFL that can actually make the 49ers’ unit feel good about themselves. New Orleans currently ranks 27th overall in the NFL in total yardage allowed, and 28th in yardage allowed through the air at 286.7 per game.
San Francisco has only eclipsed 200 passing yards once this season, when Blaine Gabbert threw for 237 against the Carolina Panthers, who are currently allowing .02 more yards per game through the air than the Saints.
Add in the fact that both starting linebackers James Laurinaitis and Dannell Ellerbe have been ruled out ahead of Sunday’s game, and Kaepernick has been spoon-fed a golden opportunity to finally turn the corner on his struggling career.
Which also begs the question of what if he, again, struggles?
Then maybe Gabbert won’t be on the bench much longer in that case.
Torrey Smith was refreshingly candid when interviewed this week after the trade deadline had passed.
Speaking to members of the media, Smith openly stated that he may have selfishly hoped for a change of scenery away from the dysfunctional offense of the 49ers that has gifted him with just 13 receptions for 199 yard and two touchdowns through seven games.
Smith may physically still be here- for the remainder of the season at least- but Sunday’s game against the Saints will tell a lot about whether he’s just a body running around the turf, or if he can stay emotionally and mentally invested in a team that’s playing for draft position at this point.
A lot of that relies on the aforementioned Kaepernick as well. Kaepernick was put into the lineup to stretch the field in favor of Smith, and he’s tried to do that so far, just not too much success.
It stands to reason that if Kaepernick can turn his struggles around, then Smith will be the prime benefactor. That’s a big “if” though, and one that can hurt Smith both on and off the field if he turns in another dud against the Saints.
The 49ers invested their highest draft pick since 2011 in Buckner, and so far, they’ve seen slim returns.
Perhaps it’s not fair to thrust Buckner into the fire as much as the 49ers have been forced to due to injuries along their defensive line. But there’s still a level of production expected out of high draft picks like Buckner, and he hasn’t reached that level yet.
Buckner’s biggest flaws so far have been his inability to fight through double teams and disengage blockers on run plays. New Orleans presents a unique set of challenges for Buckner in both areas.
The Saints have been good in pass protection thus far, allowing the second fewest sacks in the NFL with 11 despite having the eight most passing attempts on the year. If Buckner can find a way to get pressure on Brees Sunday, it will be a big step forward in his development.
Buckner will face a slightly easier task in attempting to stymy the Saints’ run game. New Orleans isn’t very adept at running the ball, currently ranking 26th in rushing yards.
The team is also in the midst of a backfield in flux, with starter Mark Ingram being benched last game after rushing three times for just five yards and losing his second fumble in as many games.
The 49ers’ other first-round draft pick hasn’t had an ideal start to his career either.
After taking over for Andrew Tiller at right guard, Garnett has surrendered a sack in each of his two starts, and has generally looked unimpressive manning his position.
Some leeway can be given to Garnett, who missed a block of the offseason training program due to draft restrictions. His first career start was also against Buffalo, who leads the NFL in sacks on the season.
But similar to Buckner, the 49ers’ have to expect some sort of reasonable production from someone they were so high on that they traded in their second-round pick to snag him.
Luckily for Garnett though, the Saints have the third lowest sack total in the NFL, and will be playing without a pair of starting linebackers to hound Kaepernick.
Garnett being able to fend off a tame Saints pass rush doesn’t immediately mean he’s rounding into his first-round form, but a little confidence can go a long way towards his development for next year. Sunday can be the start of that.
With Hyde likely out for another game with a lingering shoulder injury, it seems as if DuJuan Harris will get the bulk of the carries moving forward on Sunday.
Harris was the team’s best running back during their last outing against Tampa Bay, out-rushing start Mike Davis with 39 yards on 11 carries compared to Davis’ 21 yards on seven attempts. Neither of those numbers are staggering, but Harris has shown that he has the bruising style that more closely resembles Hyde, who has been productive in Chip Kelly’s rushing offense thus far.
This may seem like an insignificant part of the game to watch, since Hyde clearly has a stranglehold on the majority of carries when healthy, but it can be a factor for the team’s depth moving forward.
Davis impressed early in the preseason, but has largely failed to maintain his consistency throughout the year, netting just 2.3 yards per carry with 39 yards total in 2016.
If Harris can maintain his production on Sunday, the fourth-round pick in Davis is looking hard-pressed to stick around with the team for next year.