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49ers defense may be relieved to face Saints' Drew Brees

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As crazy as the premise may sound, the 49ers could be somewhat relieved to be facing Drew Brees on Sunday.

Sure, you can probably count on one hand using none of your fingers the teams who have looked forward to facing the Saints quarterback during his 19-year career. Then again, it’s doubtful any team has run through the elusive-quarterback gauntlet the 49ers have the past month.

Considering 49ers defenders have spent their last four games chasing the likes of dual-threat quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, as well as play-extender extraordinaire Aaron Rodgers, they may appreciate the singular approach to stopping the 40-year-old Brees.

Unlike the past four quarterbacks to face the 49ers, Brees is no threat to take off running. He has gained positive yardage on the ground just once in his last 13 games — a 2-yard gain against the Cowboys in Week 13 last year. Brees’ longest run in the past four years is a modest 6-yard run.

After being unable to stop Jackson from running wild for 101 yards Sunday, the pocket-bound Brees might appear as a sitting target for a 49ers team that’s second in the NFL in sacks.

Brees may still be a Hall of Fame passer, but the 49ers have stifled their opponents’ passing game lately while allowing Jackson, Rodgers and Murray a miniscule 105.7 yards per game. And this isn’t just a hot streak for San Francisco — the 49ers give up a league-low 134.2 yards through the air on average.

Here’s a closer look at the last of the 49ers’ three straight showdown games following a win over Green Bay and a loss in Baltimore:

Three reasons for 49ers’ optimism

Left side to be left out? New Orleans has been the league’s seventh-best unit protecting the quarterback, per Football Outsiders. But there’s a good chance the Saints will have to face the 49ers without left tackle Terron Armstead (high ankle sprain) as well as left guard Andrus Peat, who has a broken forearm. Veteran backup tackle Patrick Omameh and guard Nick Easton, who filled in against Atlanta, would take their place again. While the Saints didn’t allow a sack against the Falcons, the 49ers’ pass rush offers a much more difficult challenge. Atlanta’s defense is second-to-last in sacks with 18, and San Francisco is second in the league with 45.

Saints’ ground(ed) attack: For all of Brees’ passing exploits, it’s usually New Orleans’ running game that determines whether it wins or not. The Saints failed to gain 100 yards on the ground in both of their losses this year, and all but two of their 10 victories featured more than 100 yards rushing. The Saints survived for a 26-18 Thanksgiving Day victory despite running for 95 yards as a team. New Orleans is a mediocre 17th in the league in rushing while gaining 107.3 yards per game. And, with two of their offensive linemen potentially out, the Saints will be hard-pressed to gain a lot of traction against a 49ers defense that gave up just 77 yards on 22 carries to Baltimore’s running backs.

Apple’s struggles: Although the Saints’ pass defense is ranked sixth-worst while allowing 262.3 yards per game, cornerback Eli Apple has generally had a pretty decent season. He still carries a solid 68.0 Pro Football grade; however, Apple had a rough time against the Falcons last week. He committed three costly pass-interference penalties and wasn’t able to keep up with receiver Calvin Ridley. Defensive coordinator and ex-Raiders coach Dennis Allen had to switch Marshon Lattimore onto Ridley early in the game. Still, those struggles are nothing compared to last year, when Apple faced the 49ers while with the Giants and was accused of quitting during some plays. He was almost immediately traded.

Three reasons for 49ers’ pessimism

Who Dat on defense? The Saints’ defense should present quite a challenge. Their unit is ranked eighth in DVOA — a measure of a team’s defensive efficiency on every play vs. league average — and New Orleans has been especially stingy against the run. The Saints allow just 88.6 yards rushing per game — fourth-best in the NFL — and they haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 41 games. Things aren’t much easier for opponents when their quarterbacks drop back to pass, either. Thanks to their nine sacks on Thursday, the Saints now have 40 quarterback sacks, just five fewer than the 49ers’ second-best league total of 45 sacks. New Orleans’ prime pass rusher is Cameron Jordan, who is second in the NFL with 13½ sacks. Jordan had four sacks on Thursday against the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, who was either hit, pressured or sacked a whopping 37 times out of his 59 dropbacks.

Truly elite receiver awaits: Michael Thomas is as dangerous as any receiver in the league. In fact, through Week 12, Thomas had the most explosive plays (15 yards or more) of any receiver this season. With 110 receptions already, Thomas is on pace to break the NFL’s all-time single-season record of 143 set by the Colts’ Marvin Harrison. He is coming off one of his least impactful games — Thomas had six catches for just 48 yards on Thanksgiving and dropped a pass to snap his streak of 198 catches without a drop. Thomas figures to face his sternest test yet Sunday with Richard Sherman expected to shadow him. All Sherman has done is lead NFL defenders while allowing just 0.5 receiving yards per snap while in coverage this season.

Saints’ secret weapon: Actually, the secret’s been out on do-everything Taysom Hill this season. Listed as Brees’ backup at quarterback, Hill usually does much more than your average backup. Coach Sean Payton has found ways to involve the ex-BYU quarterback in his offense alongside Brees. Hill has run the ball 16 times for 127 yards and caught 16 passes for 127 yards and he’s also an effective special teams player. On Thursday, Hill did something no other NFL player has done in the last 90 years — he ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown and blocked a punt, all in the first half.

Difference-maker Alvin Kamara

If New Orleans is to beat the 49ers, the Saints will likely need more from two-time Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, who has had a somewhat disappointing third season. His 97 yards rushing against Houston in the season opener remains his season-high. Kamara had just 84 total yards on 15 touches against the Falcons and hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 3. However, he and ex-Raider Latavius Murray have provided steady chunks for yardage on the ground. The elusive Kamara averages 4.7 yards per rush and he’s also caught 64 passes out of the backfield. For those into trivia, Kamara was drafted in 2017 with the third selection in the third round with the pick San Francisco traded to the Saints.

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