In a way, Week 11 could be a critical turning point for San Francisco, as the team looks to get back on track in the wake of a disappointing and uninspiring loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10.
"We've got a tough game coming up, and we're not going to wallow in (the loss to Carolina)," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said via Jeff Mezydlo of Yahoo! Sports. "We're going to move on to New Orleans."
At 6-3, the 49ers are hoping a win against the 7-2 Saints will put them in position to better their lot in the NFC playoff picture.
It will not be an easy task.
New Orleans is undefeated at home this year and is boasting the fifth-best defense in points allowed. In addition, Saints quarterback Drew Brees owns a 129.8 passer rating at home in 2013. These factors, combined with the recent offensive woes the 49ers have endured, provide ample reason for the Saints emerging as favorites, according to a panel of CBS Sports NFL analysts.
Of course, as we all know, the game still needs to be played. Predictions, regardless of how hard they are examined, can be wrong. Should we expect the 49ers to stage an upset?
Perhaps they can.
In order for that to happen, a number of key matchups need to be evaluated. These elements figure to be critical in San Francisco's game plan.
Let us take a look.
49ers Secondary versus Saints Receivers
It is safe to assume that Brees and the Saints offense is going to do some damage in Week 11.
Brees is completing 68.0 percent of his passes and has thrown a total of 25 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 2013.
The 49ers already know that their defense will be a crucial element to limiting New Olreans' pass attack. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman has stated as much, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
While Bowman and the front seven will have to do their fair share, the secondary will be equally as important in shutting down the Saints' vaunted offense.
Rookie safety Eric Reid looks like he will be ready to go, per Bill Williamson of ESPN. Reid, who left the game versus Carolina with a concussion, returns to his home state to play against the Saints.
Reid and the rest of San Francisco's secondary plan on being very physical against the New Orleans' receiving corps. According to Tre Niner @Tre9er of Niners Nation, cornerback Tarell Brown emphasized the need for the Niner defense to adopt that mindset.
Jamming receivers at the line will be a critical element of San Francisco's pass defense which, thus far in 2013, ranks eighth in the NFL in passing yards allowed. While wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills expect to get their fair share of touches, the biggest aerial threat continues to be tight end Jimmy Graham, who is listed as "probable" on New Orleans' injury list.
Thwarting Graham, who leads all Saints pass catchers with 805 receiving yards, is going to be a tough task for San Francisco. Look for the 49ers to pay plenty of attention to him throughout the game.
Like Brees, Graham will probably do some damage. San Francisco has to be concerned with limiting it.
It is also worth noting that Brees threw two pick-six interceptions last season when the 49ers and Saints faced off in New Orleans. While a similar performance would be a bonus, San Francisco's secondary will be challenged to replicate it in Week 11.
Linebacker Aldon Smith versus Saints Offensive Line
Aldon Smith saw limited action in Week 10 following his return from a five-game leave of absence earlier this season. While the pass-rushing linebacker did not record a sack in his return, Smith was effective at putting pressure on Carolina's quarterback Cam Newton.
Now, Smith will be expected to put plenty of pressure on Brees who has been sacked a total of 21 times this season. As reported by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Brees noted that he plans to see a lot of Smith.
Recognizing the importance of having Smith on the field, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has indicated that Smith will have an increased role in Week 11, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Generating an effective pass rush will be just as critical as containing and limiting the damage in the secondary. In many ways, the pass rush will be more crucial.
If Smith and the rest of the San Francisco front seven can force Brees to throw early, the secondary's job will be that much easier. The 49ers defense will hopefully force a few three-and-outs from New Orleans' offense in order to stay as fresh as possible.
Smith needs to generate the pressure. If he can, San Francisco's defense should be in decent shape and will help keep the game close.
Frank Gore and the Running Game versus New Orleans' Run Defense
It is not a mystery that the 49ers are a run-first team.
In many ways, the running game has been the lone consistent offensive weapon the 49ers have used thus far in 2013. While the Saints defense has been stellar this season—ranked fifth in the league in points allowed—they have struggled against the run. They have allowed 1,059 rushing yards, ranking them 19th in the NFL.
The 49ers hope to exploit this weakness.
If Frank Gore and the rest of San Francisco's backs can help sustain drives against New Orleans, the 49ers will be in that much better shape.
Running the ball and sustaining drives keeps the defense rested. Of equal importance, it keeps Brees, Graham and the rest New Orleans' potent offense on the sidelines.
Remaining committed to the ground game should be vital to offensive coordinator Greg Roman's game plan; he can't abandon the run in the second half—something the offense did in the team's Week 10 loss to Carolina.
Look for Gore to get at least 20 carries against the Saints. If he and the rest of the 49er backs can do their job, San Francisco should be in good position to have a shot at winning this one.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick versus Saints Defense
This is a hard one to dissect.
For starters, this author could have written something about Colin Kaepernick versus himself. That may not be all that fair, however. I could have mentioned how his offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting him in the pocket—they were pretty atrocious in Week 10. Equally important could be the lack of production at wide receiver and the potential absence of Vernon Davis following his Week 10 concussion.
Yet all of that, which pretty much covers the 49ers' ineptitude in the passing game, is better described by Maiocco.
To say Kaepernick needs to be better in Week 11 would be redundant. We all know that.
How will he go about doing this against a revitalized Saints defense? That is the primary question.
While much of Kaepernick's performance will be based around what happens with the running game, Kaepernick needs to be able to make some plays Sunday. Fortunately, one of his favorite weapons in Davis looks good enough to play against New Orleans, according to Williamson's ESPN report.
Davis is the lone 49er who stretches the field and has been San Francisco's sole deep threat thus far this season. That should give Kaepernick plenty of options underneath if the offense chooses to utilize them. Obviously, receivers like Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham need to do their respective jobs as well.
Bowman feels as if Kaepernick will be able to bounce back nicely:
Perhaps even more important is San Francisco's play-calling on offense. As argued by 49ers Bleacher Report featured columnist Dylan DeSimone, Roman's game plans need to demonstrate more creativity.
The 49ers have plenty of underutilized weapons. Kaepernick needs to have those available to him. True, he needs to do a better job at executing and making decisions, yet his recent issues go far beyond what is happening under center.
If Kaepernick can get back on track and emulate the performance he had last year when these same two teams faced off, the recent struggles could be put to rest—at least temporarily.
We all know Kaepernick has talent. He just needs to have the means to showcase it.
These factors, among others, should be considered vital facets to the 49ers' chances in Week 11.
There is a lot at stake for this franchise in 2013. They are in the middle of a hot playoff race in the NFC, and there remains plenty of football left to be played.
But executing properly and getting the most out of the aforementioned matchups will be a critical aspect as to how Week 11's game pans out. If the 49ers win, their victory will be in large measure to what is previously described.
Yet if they fail to adequately reach these goals, San Francisco will continue to fall in the standings, and their playoff picture becomes even more precarious.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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