One of the marquee games on Sunday features the San Fransico 49ers at the New Orleans Saints. This one is a huge game for the NFC playoff picture. The 49ers (6-3) donít want to fall any farther behind the (9-1) Seahawks. A win and they still have a shot at the division (they play the Seahawks Week 14). A loss and they fall back toward the muddled-up wild card picture with the Eagles, Bears, Panthers, Packers, and Cardinals. For the Saints, a win keeps them a game ahead of the red hot Panthers and it also keeps them in control of one of the two home field advantage spots. A loss drops the Saints to 6-3, and with games coming up against the Panthers (twice) and the Seahawks, things can always go south pretty quickly.
The Niners stay steady behind the running of Frank Gore and a tough defense. Their defense ranks fourth overall in our cumulative rankings, includind third in pass coverage. Big plays from Vernon Davis also give the offense a boost. The return of Michael Crabtree in the next few weeks should also give them a spark, by taking some pressure off of the struggling Colin Kaepernick.
The Saints are lead by a strong offense and much-improved defense. Drew Brees leads the No. 2 offense in our cumulative rankings and they have the third-highest rated passing offense. After ranking last and second to last the last two seasons, the Saintsí defense finds itself 16th in our cumulative rankings. That much improved Saintsí defense will be one of the factors in the first matchup I take a look at.
Frank Gore vs. Saints Run Defense
Everyone keeps waiting for Frank Goreís performance to drop off. Heís been in the league for quite a while, is now on the wrong side of 30, and has always had a physical running style. That drop off will have to wait another year. Gore is as consistent as ever. His +10.3 grade ranks seventh out of all backs, and on top of that he is second in our Breakaway Percentage Signature Stat at 41.4%. His 13 runs of 15+ yards are tied for the league lead. With Colin Kaepernick struggling, the 49ers will need Gore to pop a couple of these 15+ yard runs to loosen up the New Orleans defense.
The Saintsí run defense hasnít improved as much as their pass coverage or their pass rush. They are toward the middle of the pack and currently rank 19th in our cumulative rankings in run defense. They do have some talented players up front that can make a mark on this game. Akiem Hicks is fourth overall in Run Stop Percentage among 3-4 DEs at 11.2% and his 19 run stops rank third among 3-4 ends. Cameron Jordan has also been solid with a +3.4 run grade, and they are even getting contributions from rookie Kenny Vaccaro. While they have talent they also have a couple of weak spots. Curtis Lofton has struggled against the run with a -4.3 grade and his 14 total missed tackles are second-worst among all inside backers. Malcolm Jenkins has improved in coverage but his run grade ranks him 74th out of 86 safeties. The Saints have their work cut out for them Sunday.
Cameron Jordan vs. Joe Staley
After a slump in Weeks 6-9, Cam Jordan put up another good showing last week. Overall he is second in our grading among 3-4 ends with a +21.0 grade. He is a positive in the run game, but makes most of his impact with his pass rushing. He is second in PFFís Pass Rush Productivity stat among 3-4 DEs at 10.9 and his 41 total pressures rank third.
Jordan will be tested by Joe Staley. Staley is the third-highest rated tackle at the moment. He was our No. 1 tackle in 2012 as he dominated with a +25.0 run blocking grade. He is much more balanced this year. His run grade isnít on the same pace, but his pass blocking has picked up. His Pass Blocking Effeciency ranks third overall at 96.7% after finishing 19th in 2012. This is a top-notch battle in the trenches that could go a long way in determining the winner of this game.
Jimmy Graham vs. 49ers Safeties
As crazy as it sounds, Jimmy Graham is much improved from 2012 to this year. He is already No. 1 among tight ends in targets and touchdowns, and his 805 receiving yards leads all other tight ends by almost 200 yards. The most noticeable improvement has been his drops. Graham had 15 drops last year for a 15% Drop Rate. So far this year his Drop Rate of 5.26% ranks seventh overall among tight ends. His run blocking has slipped a bit, but he is as dangerous as ever down the field only now he is catching the ball at a much more consistent rate.
The 49ersí secondary will counter with Eric Reid and Donte Whitner. They both carry a possitve coverage grade. Quarterbacks are 21-46 this year for 296 yards and a 48.6 rating when throwing into their coverage. Reid and Whitner have yet to allow a touchdown this year and as a bonus they have combined for four picks. Patrick Willis could also see some time on Graham. Willis is seventh overall among inside backers with a +4.3 coverage grade. He has allowed 21 of 27 passes to be completed, but these throws have only netted 211 yards and a single touchdown. Overall, Willis, Reid, and Whitner have allowed a high percentage of throws to be completed against them, but the yardage and overall damage from these throws has been kept to a minimum. Jimmy Grahamís game is about making big plays down the field and the 49ers have been stingy in this regard. Something has to give in this matchup.