By Jerrell Richardson
Turnovers and the play of their defense kept them in it, but for the second straight week, the 49ers lost a close game to a tough opponent that they should have won. While the offense did not play particularly well, they were not alone this time, as the special teams played a role in the defeat as well. Despite their mishaps, in a game that nobody gave them a chance to win, San Francisco almost pulled off the upset. Instead it was a dejected 49er sideline after watching the Saints kick a field goal as the clock expired, giving New Orleans the 23-20 win. The 49ers can’t be happy with their performance or the outcome, as even if they were not expected to win the game, they will fly back to California knowing that they let this one slip through their fingers.
Offense – Grade: D
Colin Kaepernick did not do a lot to silence his critics with this performance. He completed 17 of his 31 attempts, totaled 127 passing yards and threw one interception. He did throw two touchdowns, but both were after the defense forced a turnover, and were on short fields. It also can’t be ignored that his interception, if not for a freak turnover, would have resulted in a pick six. However, it was still the same old story of the players around him doing little to help him out. Kaepernick targeted eight different receivers, but other than Anquan Boldin, who finished with six catches for 56 yards, Kaepernick had nobody to throw to. Either the receivers failed to get separation, or couldn’t make a play for their quarterback. This played perfectly into the game plan of the Saints defense who were daring San Francisco to beat them with the pass by stacking up against the run.
While it was the Saints plan to force the 49ers to throw, San Francisco still needed to show a commitment to the run. As a team, the 49ers had only 22 total rushing plays, with Frank Gore touching the ball a measly 13 times. LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter were given six carries combined, but with so few running plays as a whole, it’s asking too much for any of the backs to get into any sort of rhythm. As has been the case all year, if the 49ers fail to run the ball they will lose. While they were not gashing the New Orleans defense, it was still a mistake to stop running the ball as it made them one dimensional.
The offense played well at times, but was not consistent. Very little was needed from the offense to secure a win, yet they were unable to do their part. The defense on the other hand continues to play at an elite level.
Defense – Grade: A
To hold Drew Brees and the high powered Saints offense to 23 points is more than commendable. Not only did the defense prevent this game from turning into a shoot-out, but they played well enough to hand the ball to their offense with a chance to ice the game late in the fourth. Brees was able to pass for over 300 yards, but only had one touchdown, threw an interception and was contained for most of the day. His favorite target, Jimmy Graham was held in check with 41 yards, yet Brees showed his greatness looking elsewhere, completing passes to 11 different players. The Saints passing game lead the way, and as it has been all year, the New Orleans running attack was used only to keep the 49ers defense honest.
Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram both had over four yards per carry, and as a team, the Saints managed just 92 yards on the ground. While their ground game did not overwhelm San Francisco it proved to be just enough to open things up for New Orleans to make a few big plays through the air.
The 49er defense made the Saints earn every point they got, and even in the fourth quarter, when New Orleans was making their comeback, San Francisco refused to let their opponent into the end zone. To do the job they did, in the environment they did it is a good sign for a defense that will not see another offense during the regular season as difficult to deal with as this one.
Special Teams – Grade: B-
Two blunders on special teams helped seal the 49ers fate. The first was the kickoff coverage team allowing an 82-yard return in the second quarter, setting up a Saints touchdown, and the second was a fair catch interference penalty on the final drive that made it impossible for the defense to keep Brees out of field goal range. Outside of those two plays, the special teams were again outstanding. Andy Lee averaged 49.4 yards on his seven punts while Phil Dawson hit both his field goals, including a 55-yarder.
49ers Will Be Able to Turn Things Around
To beat the New Orleans Saints, in their building, the 49ers needed to play flawlessly and they did not even come close. Despite their sloppy play, they can take away a lot of positives from this game, and have to continue to like the play of the defense. The offense will have to elevate its play, and the special teams has to clean up its errors, but based on the personnel returning to the 49ers offense and the consistently good play of the special teams before this effort, there is nothing indicating that San Francisco will not right it’s ship and sail into the playoffs playing much better football than the team now that has lost two straight.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.