New Orleans Saints All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas is putting up video game numbers in year four of his career. He’s on pace for an NFL record 146 catches and career-high 1,720 receiving yards. Thomas sees a high volume of passes his way, as he currently leads the league in targets with 132 -- but has a pedestrian 11.7 yards per catch, which ranks 74th in the NFL.
The Saints run a timing-based offense focusing on getting the ball out of veteran quarterback Drew Brees' hand quick.
But how will both Thomas and Brees fair against a stingy San Francisco 49ers defense?
Not only do the 49ers possess the No. 1 defense in the NFL, but they also have the stingiest pass defense we’ve seen in decades. Believe it or not, 134.0 yards per game is all the 49ers are surrendering through the air. What’s even more impressive is what they’ve done against non-mobile quarterbacks.
What does all that mean? Brees and the Saints are in big, big trouble.
The 49ers' defense is led by a relentless pass rush that ranks second in the league in sacks. And if it weren’t for playing Kyler Murray twice, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson in recent weeks, their 45 team sacks through 12 games would be even higher.
Behind a stellar pass rush, the 49ers boast just as good a secondary. Led by Richard Sherman -- whose play has rubbed off on young cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley -- the 49ers' pass defense has surrendered a league-best 5.1 yards per pass attempt. The league average is 7.3. Furthermore, the 49ers' pass defense is 7th in the NFL with 11 interceptions, much better than their 2018 total (2).
Enough with the stats. Let’s talk about how I think this game will play out.
In my most humble opinion, I don’t think the New Orleans Saints have a chance.
Football is a game of matchups or lack thereof. And the 49ers' strengths cancel out the Saints' strengths. The 49ers have cancelled opposing teams' wide receiver ones. Mike Evans was held to two catches for 28 yards. Rams receivers Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp combined for seven catches for 35 yards. Devante Adams had seven catches for just 43 yards and one of those catches was a jet sweep.
The 49ers don’t just do it with one player. It’s a group effort by all 11 players on the defense. The front end applies pressure; the linebackers -- led by NFC Defensive Player of the Month Fred Warner -- shrinks windows in the second level; and the back end defensive backs challenge every pass in the air. No drop back quarterback has fared well against the 49ers this season. The most successful guy was Andy Dalton and that was because of a garbage time post to John Ross that went 66 yards for a TD vs. 49ers reserves. Brees will have to do what no other pocket passer has been able to accomplish: move the ball efficiently and score points.
The 49ers offense has to overcome a crazy Mercedes Benz Dome crowd that gets extremely rowdy for the home team Saints. Look for the 49ers defense to set the tone for how the game will play out.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images
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