49ers face critical contest against New Orleans
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.
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.