Colin Kaepernick led a big 49ers' victory over the Bears
The San Francisco 49ers played an excellent game against the Chicago Bears, on Monday Night Football. The 49ers, with Colin Kaepernick playing quarterback in place of the concussed Alex Smith, won 32-7, moving their record to 7-2-1. The 49ers now have a one-and-a-half game lead in the NFC West.
Facing a short week of preparation, the 49ers must start getting ready for their next game. The 49ers will face the Saints on the road, in New Orleans. The Saints started the year in a state of turmoil due to the "Bountygate" suspensions.
After starting the season with a 1-4 record, the Saints have now won four of their last five games. The Saints are arguably the hottest team in the league and quarterback Drew Brees has them firing on all cylinders.
Let's take a closer look at some of the key things to look for in this game.
Drew Brees has the Saints' offense in high gear
The New Orleans Saints play host to the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. The Saints started the year slowly, amid turmoil over the "Bountygate" scandal, losing four of their first five games.
However, led by Drew Brees, the Saints have now rebounded to win four of their most recent five games and are one of the hottest teams in the league. With a record of 5-5, New Orleans can put themselves right in the thick of the playoff chase with a victory over the 49ers, this Sunday.
The Saints' passing attack is ranked second in the NFL, averaging 296.4 yards-per-game. Brees has thrown for 28 touchdowns and only has nine interceptions.
Brees has some potent weapons in the passing attack. Marcus Colston, Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore lead them with 144 receptions for 1,921 yards and 19 touchdowns. Running back Darren Sproles is also a threat out of the backfield, adding 39 receptions for 323 yards and four touchdowns.
The San Francisco defense currently ranks second in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed, giving up an average of 182.9 yards-per-game. The 49ers' secondary has generally played well against the pass, although they had particular trouble against the Giants and Rams.
This is the key matchup of the game, and if the 49ers' secondary can contain the Saints' passing attack, they should win this game. However, that's a big if.
Aldon Smith had a record night on Monday Night Football
Aldon Smith went around and through the offensive line of the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, collecting 5.5 sacks in the process. He was aided by the strong presence of Justin Smith, who often stunts with Aldon, occupying blockers, so that Aldon can bust through and get the sack.
The Saints will do everything they can to neutralize Smith's pass-rushing prowess. Drew Brees is hard to sack because he has an excellent command of the offense and a quick release. I also expect the Saints to try and double team Smith on their longer pass patterns, giving Brees more time to set up in the pocket.
If the 49ers can get strong pressure on Brees, it can disrupt the Saints' passing attack. This will be hard to accomplish on a consistent basis, however. The Saints have only allowed 16 sacks all year. Compare that to the 49ers, who have allowed 31 sacks.
The 49ers lead the league in fewest points allowed, at 13.4 point-per-game. However, failure to harass Brees will result in a very tough assignment for the 49ers' defense and a much higher scoring game.
In 2011, these two teams played in the playoffs and it was a real shootout. Alex Smith had arguably his best game of his career and led the 49ers to a 36-32 win.
A big key to holding the Saints' potent offense in check will be the amount of pressure the 49ers can put on Brees.
Frank Gore eludes a Bear tackler
In the 2011 playoff game between the 49ers and Saints, Frank Gore had 89 yards on only 13 caries. His 6.8 yards-per-carry was his best in the playoffs.
The Saints are last in the league in rushing defense. They allow an average of 157.8 yards-per-game on the ground. As long as the 49ers don't fall too far behind in this game, they will try to exploit the soft New Orleans run defense.
The strength of the 49ers' offense is their ground attack and I look for Gore to have a big game. If he does, and the 49ers can control the clock, and score on their drives, it will put a huge onus on Drew Brees and the Saints' offense to find a way to score every time they get the ball.
Vernon Davis had a team-high six receptions against the Bears
The New Orleans Saints are next-to-last in pass defense in the league. They allow a whopping 312 yards-per-game through the air.
In last year's playoff contest, a 36-32 win by the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith had one of the best games of his career. Smith completed 24 of his 32 pass attempts, for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Vernon Davis led the way with seven receptions, for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
This could become another high scoring game, much like last season's playoff game.
Colin Kaepernick played well against the Bears
Do the 49ers have a quarterback controversy?
The media is certainly trying to create one, and in Jim Harbaugh's last press conference he did little to squelch the topic.
With Alex Smith out due to a concussion, Colin Kaepernick started the first game of his career last Monday night against the Chicago Bears.
Kaepernick played well and led the 49ers to a surprising 32-7 victory. He completed 16 of his 23 pass attempts, for 243 yards and two touchdowns. What was equally impressive was that Kaepernick did not turn the ball over against the Bears' defense which leads the league in takeaways.
Kaepernick displayed a much stronger arm and willingness to throw the ball downfield, which Smith often avoids. He also showed that his grasp of the 49ers' offensive system was improving as he guided the 49ers with confidence and a bit of a swagger.
The biggest beneficiary of Kaepernick playing may have been tight end Vernon Davis. He caught six passes for 83 yards and one touchdown. In the three games prior to Smith's injury, Davis caught only five passes for a total of 71 yards.
It appeared as if Smith was close to being cleared for last week's game and my guess is that he will be cleared for the game against the Saints.
If Smith is cleared to play, I expect him to be back in the lineup as the starter. Prior to his concussion, Smith had completed 25 of his last 27 pass attempts and was on a roll.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh is unlikely to remove Smith from the starting lineup if he's healthy. However, the leash will be shorter and if Smith struggles, it's good to know that we have a very capable understudy in Colin Kaepernick.
Jim Harbaugh is pleased with his team, or is he praying?
The 49ers currently have the second-best record in the NFC, behind only the Atlanta Falcons. If they finished like this, they would get a first-round playoff bye and host the second game.
Although the home field is not a guarantee of victory, as the 49ers found out in the NFC title game last year against the Giants, it certainly is an advantage.
The upcoming game against the Saints promises to be a wild one. We have the high powered passing attack of Drew Brees facing the 49ers' defense which is the second-rated unit in the NFL.
Then in a contrast of styles, the 49ers and their strong running game could dictate the tempo of the game. Alternatively, we could see the 49ers open up and try to exploit the vulnerable Saints' secondary. Either way, this is a game you don't want to miss.