Don’t think ahead to the 49ers’ season-finale showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, a game that could determine which team wins the NFC West and earns a bye week in the playoffs.
The 49ers first have to beat the Saints in New Orleans.
If the 49ers lose this game, that season-finale showdown against the Seahawks may not matter, because the Seahawks might have won the division already.
The 49ers need to win this weekend. But they’re 2½-point underdogs, and they’re playing a Saints team that went into Seattle with their backup quarterback and beat the Seahawks by six points. The same Seahawks team that beat the 49ers by three points in Santa Clara.
The 49ers will need to play their best game of the season to beat the Saints. Here are five keys to victory.
1. A solution to stop Saints running back Alvin Kamara: The 49ers have a clear path to winning.
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The Saints’ starting left guard, Andrus Peat, will not play, and their starting left tackle, Terron Armstead, might not play, either. He’s questionable. The Saints offensive line is banged up. Their quarterback, Drew Brees, is stationary, a standing target. And the 49ers defensive line might be the best in the NFL. If they sack Drew Brees five or six times, the 49ers should win.
But Brees is hard to sack. Even while playing with backups on the offensive line, Brees has taken just two sacks the past three games.
He usually dumps the ball off before he goes down, and he usually dumps it off to his running back, Kamara, one of the NFL’s best players. Kamara is a key in this game.
Kamara could catch 10 passes against the 49ers. He bails out Brees when Brees is in trouble. He turns would-be sacks into positive plays and sometimes big gains and has almost single-handedly extended Brees’ career. The Saints have won 21 of the past 24 regular-season games Kamara has played. The 49ers have to shut him down.
When the season started and the 49ers looked ahead to this game, they probably expected Kwon Alexander to cover Kamara out of the backfield, because Alexander can match up with Kamara’s quickness and speed. But Alexander is on IR with a pectoral injury. Meaning Fred Warner will have to cover Kamara on key plays. Big test for Warner, who’s a terrific, smart young player, but not quite as athletic as Alexander or Kamara. So much depends on this matchup.
2. A big game from 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris: Brees checks the ball down quite a bit, but he also throws downfield. And when he throws downfield, he often targets his tight end, Jared Cook.
Cook played for the Raiders from 2017 to 2018, and he’s fast. Ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine, a great time for a 6-foot-5, 254-pound athlete. Most linebackers aren’t fast enough to cover Cook. Strong safeties usually cover him.
The 49ers starting strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, will miss this game with broken ribs. So, his backup, Harris, will have to cover Cook.
Brees has targeted Cook 28 times the past four games. Harris will see lots of action. Is he ready? He certainly was last week when he stripped the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The 49ers need big plays from Harris.
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3. A plan to protect Jimmy Garoppolo: The 49ers have an excellent pass rush, but so do the Saints. They have 40 sacks this season — only six fewer than the 49ers. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who went to Cal, recorded four sacks just last week and could be the best defensive lineman in the entire league. He plays like Justin Smith when Smith was in his prime.
It’s possible Garoppolo could go down more than Brees in this game.
The 49ers will have to use a silent count on offense, because the Superdome is so loud — maybe the loudest stadium in the league. The 49ers’ offensive tackles will react a beat late to the snap of the football, and the Saints’ pass rush will have a head start.
Kyle Shanahan needs to call lots of quick-release passes and screens for Garoppolo, like Saints head coach Sean Payton usually does for Brees. And Garoppolo has to hold onto the football when he gets hit. He has fumbled eight times this season.
4. An effective rushing attack: The best way to protect Garoppolo from the Saints and himself is to run the ball.
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But the Saints have a good run defense. Two weeks ago, they held the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey, to just 64 rushing yards on 22 carries. The 49ers don’t have a running back as good as McCaffrey.
And yet, the 49ers still rush for 148 yards per game — second most in the NFL. And they have four running backs who can explode for big games any week: Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.
“They have unique things that they do well, but all of them can do everything,” Garoppolo said. “They can all catch, they can all run with the ball. Kyle and the rest of the coaches do a great job of putting those guys in there and putting them in spots to be successful.”
Last week against the Ravens, Mostert, the 49ers’ third-string running back, rushed for 146 yards. An encore performance wouldn’t hurt.
5. A major contribution from at least one undrafted player: The 49ers have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, and 25% of their players were undrafted.
Mostert is one of those undrafted players. The others are Breida, Wilson Jr., backup quarterback Nick Mullens, tight end Ross Dwelley, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, left tackle Daniel Brunskill, center Ben Garland, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, nickelback K’Waun Williams and long snapper Kyle Nelson.
Throughout this remarkable season for the 49ers, undrafted players have played significant roles in their success. Mostert kept the 49ers in the game against the Ravens. Wilson Jr. caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Arizona Cardinals. Moseley shut down Browns All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. And Daniel Brunskill has been an upgrade over Joe Staley at left tackle since Staley injured his leg, finger and back.
Credit John Lynch and the front office for finding these players, and credit Shanahan’s coaching staff for developing them. If the 49ers beat the Saints, one of these undrafted players probably will have a big game. That’s the 49ers’ pattern.