49ers vs. Saints: 10 Keys to the Game for San Francisco
After years of Alex Smith under center, the San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1) suddenly have a new look at quarterback.
According to Jim Trotter of SI.com, Jim Harbaugh has named Colin Kaepernick as the starter for this Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints (5-5), and the decision is reportedly "not health related."
Surely Kaepernick will be tested in his first career road start, but the 49ers have plenty of ways that they can assist the second-year signal-caller.
The following slides are San Francisco's 10 keys to the game.
Aldon Smith and the Pass Rush
After posting 5.5 sacks against the Bears, what will Aldon Smith provide for an encore?
The New Orleans offensive line is one the better pass-blocking units in the league.
Smith leads the NFL with 15.0 sacks. Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief are both capable of shutting down elite pass-rushers, but they'll undoubtedly have their hands full blocking Smith.
If Smith is wreaking havoc in the backfield, the 49ers defense might rattle Brees and...
Force Multiple Turnovers
The 49ers forced five turnovers in last year's playoff game against New Orleans, and as it turned out, they needed every last one of them in their 36-32 victory.
This year's teams have several similarities.
The Saints offense is still one of the best in the league. You aren't going to shut it down for an entire game.
The 49ers will need to be opportunistic and pounce on New Orleans' few mistakes.
And if San Francisco can indeed force multiple turnovers, they'll need to take advantage of them by...
Scoring TDs in the Red Zone
If the 49ers do force some turnovers and get some short fields, they'll have several opportunities in the red zone to score.
Colin Kaepernick threw two touchdowns in the red zone last week, and he'll find the same success this week if San Francisco can establish...
Frank Gore and the Running Game
The 49ers are No. 1 in the NFL in rushing yards and the Saints are dead last in rushing yards allowed.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster for New Orleans.
Expect the Saints to put their primary focus on stopping Gore and try to force Kaepernick to beat them. Even if this is the case, it'll be key for Gore and the running game to take some pressure off of the ex-Nevada star and be effective with eight men in the box.
The Superdome crowd is known for being deafening, and in a hostile environment, a running game is a quarterback's best friend.
A time-eating offense should help the 49ers on the other side of the ball, especially when playing...
Something's gotta give.
The Saints are fourth in the NFL in converting third downs at 44.9 percent. The 49ers are third-best in the league at preventing third-down conversions, limiting opposing offenses to a 32.6-percent clip.
If Brees is around 50 percent for the game, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Saints score in the high 20s or low 30s.
San Francisco doesn't want to get into a shootout, and it'll need to win these key battles on third down to keep New Orleans' offense in the high teens and low 20s.
Easier said than done, especially when trying to...
Contain Jimmy Graham
To be fair, the Saints have more than just one dynamic option. Lance Moore, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles are all explosive options in the passing game.
But the biggest matchup nightmare of all is Jimmy Graham.
In the last year's playoff game, Graham had five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard score late in the fourth quarter.
Graham is fast enough to get open against Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and he's big and athletic enough to out-jump any 49er defender in the end zone.
Containing Graham won't be possible unless the 49ers get great play from...
Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner
Often labeled the weak links of the defense, the 49ers' safeties will surely be out to prove just the opposite against New Orleans.
They will be tested early an often by a Saints aerial attack that averages 296.4 yards per game.
Not only will they need to contain Graham, they'll also be responsible for helping out San Francisco's corners against dangerous wideouts Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.
The entire 49ers defense was awesome against New Orleans for three quarters in the playoff game, but then the unit didn't...
The Saints are the only team to score more than 27 points against the 49ers since Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2011.
The major culprit for the Saints eclipsing that threshold was leaky fourth-quarter defense.
Brees and the Saints scored 18 points in the fourth, including two touchdowns of over 40 yards.
As long as the 49ers keep everything in front of them and let the front four get pressure on Brees, they shouldn't have another fourth-quarter collapse on defense.
And if they do keep the Saints from making a big rally in the fourth, all they'll need to secure the victory is...
Poise from Colin Kaepernick
The 49ers have the running game and defense to stay with the Saints.
But they'll need Kaepernick to make a few big throws to push them over the top.
In those key moments late in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick will have to stay poised and make smart decisions.
I think he will.
Prediction: San Francisco 27 New Orleans 23