Mario Manningham Will Jump-Start the 49ers Offense Against the Saints

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterNovember 16, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 25:  Mario Manningham #82 of the San Francisco 49ers runs for yards against the New Orleans Saints during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 25, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

After a dreadful outing offensively against the Carolina Panthers, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the San Francisco 49ers will look to get back on track this Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It’s evident that the task won’t be easy because of the New Orleans Saints unblemished record at home, yet no task is too daunting when you sport a top-notch defense and a rushing attack lead by Frank Gore.

However, a matchup versus the Saints in front of their home crowd will require head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. to pull out all the stops. Third-year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick has to get his act together under center and a viable pass-catching target outside of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis will have to emerge if the 49ers want to head home with a “W” in the win column.

Wideout Michael Crabtree has started to make progress but he's not where he needs to be, so you know either Mario Manningham, Jonathan Baldwin, Quinton Patton or Kassim Osgood will have to be that guy who comes up big when Kaepernick needs him to the most. Out of the four names mentioned above, there’s no question Manningham will be the receiver who jump-starts the 49ers offense.

Baldwin has yet to play well enough to consistently find his way onto the field, Osgood is nothing more than a special teams ace and Patton is a rookie who is doing the best job he can to return from a broken foot. This, in turn, means the sixth-year pro out of Michigan has no choice but to accept the expectations the coaching staff will place upon him until Crabtree returns.

Mario Manningham's Week 10 Stat Line
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Sure, Manningham’s 2013 debut probably didn’t end the way he had envisioned, but he didn’t exactly have a whole lot to work with considering the 49ers finished last week’s game with 151 yards of total offense on 52 plays. The good news is his three-catch, 30-yard performance ended up being team highs in both statistical categories.

Moreover, Manningham saw six targets (team high) while logging 45 snaps. It’s obvious, based on the numbers, that Kaepernick welcomed the sure-handed receiver back with open arms.

Nonetheless, a three-catch, 30-yard showing won’t get the job done come Sunday.

Yes, Manningham did just enough to help keep the game close in Week 10, but the New Orleans offense is an entirely different breed compared to Carolina’s. As it stands right now, the Saints tout the second-best offense in the NFL. They are averaging 422.7 yards per game.

Aside from their 422.7 yards-per-game average, quarterback Drew Brees and the boys have scored 265 points in nine games. That’s almost 30 (29.4) points per contest. Additionally, it’s a big reason as to why the Saints are having a bounce-back year at 7-2.

If the 49ers plan to keep pace with Sean Payton’s offense, their 32nd-ranked passing attack will have to operate the way it did Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, and Manningham will be relied upon to expose left cornerback Jabari Greer. Yet, the latter part of that notion won’t be a walk in the park.

According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Greer has hit a few rough patches in coverage this season but has really started to turn things around as of late. In Weeks 9 and 10, the 31-year-old corner amassed four passes defended while surrendering three completions on nine attempts.

As far as two-week stretches go, Greer has played about as well as anyone could expect him to. Clearly, there are always one or two plays a player wishes he could have back, but all in all the veteran defensive back has demonstrated he is starting to settle into defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense.

Still, Manningham has proven over time that he has the necessary ability to beat any cornerback who stands in his way. When one takes the time to examine his skill set, it becomes quite clear that he is at his best when he is lined up on the right side of the formation in the flanker position.

NFL Game Rewind

Lo and behold, his first target and reception of the season came when he was lined up on the right side of the formation at the flanker position. The 49ers offense was in “21 personnel,” and Manningham was working against left cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

Despite the fact Munnerlyn is viewed as an above-average corner, Manningham made quick work of him by running a precise route and showing quickness in and out of his breaks. Even though the throw and catch only resulted in a 10-yard gain, take a moment to focus in on No. 82’s talent level on the curl route.

Manningham took advantage of off-man coverage, thanks in large part to an abrupt burst off the line of scrimmage and sound acceleration throughout the route. It may sound incredibly simple, but exceptional route-running techniques often separate the good receivers from the mediocre ones.

NFL Game Rewind

On this second play, versus his old team in 2012, left wide receiver Manningham shows off his football IQ when he beats the New York Giants defense and their Cover 3 look. As soon as the ball was snapped, he correctly read the safety that crept closer to the line of scrimmage and the cornerback that dropped straight off into a sink position down the sideline.

By accurately deciphering the coverage, Manningham knew he would have a chance at finding a soft spot in the zone toward the middle of the field. Coincidentally enough, the soft spot was there just as he had interpreted, and Kaepernick put the ball on him for a 36-yard pickup right before the end of the first half.

His intelligence level on the play didn’t show up in the box score, yet it was undeniable that he understands particular coverages. Additionally, it’s apparent that his experiences (past and present) have helped him become a more consistent receiver week in and week out, even if the numbers he has put up since the beginning of 2012 beg to differ.

Both plays hone in on different areas of Manningham’s craft, and both plays show he has the fundamental strengths to beat any cornerback in the league.

2013 NFC Playoff Standings Through Week 10
Seattle Seahawks9-11st Seed
New Orleans Saints7-22nd Seed
Detroit Lions6-33rd Seed
Dallas Cowboys5-54th Seed
Carolina Panthers6-35th Seed
San Francisco 49ers6-36th Seed

As the NFC playoff race starts to take shape, the 49ers need to do everything in their power to hold on to the No. 6 seed. And with seven games left to play, San Francisco will need to find an identity through the air to complement their all-world run game.

Undoubtedly, Manningham can already feel the heat because he realizes the organization needs him to be that complement to Gore. Yet, it is up to him to decide whether or not he has what it takes physically and mentally to jump-start Roman’s offense.

Fortunately for the 49ers, the Super Bowl-winning wideout is accustomed to clutch situations. Expect Manningham to fully break out and garner his first 100-yard receiving game since Week 17 of the 2010 season.

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