Last week the San Francisco 49ers blew a very winnable game versus an opponent they had beaten three weeks ago, on the road, by two touchdowns. Losing that game means this week’s match up with the New Orleans Saints takes on that much more importance. When you can’t beat the teams you’re supposed to beat at home, then you have to go on the road and win games you aren’t supposed to win. This is what the underdog 49ers are staring at as they travel to New Orleans.
Over Jim Harbaugh’s career as head coach of the 49ers, the team’s offense has never been it’s greatest strength. There was a brief period at the end of the 2012 season when the offense carried the team, putting up almost 35 points a game in the post-season. During the rest of Harbaugh’s tenure the strength of the team has been a top flight defense while the offense has been competent. Good enough. Alex Smith handed the ball to Frank Gore and very rarely to the opposing defense. When Colin Kaepernick began his first full season in 2013, he quite simply didn’t have the weapons to take over ball games. This year was supposed to be different. Healthy Michael Crabtree. Stevie Johnson. Carlos Hyde. But the 49ers offense may have reached a low point this past Sunday, managing just 10 points at home versus the Rams while allowing eight sacks, the third most in 49ers history.
The entire offense deserves blame for last week’s crap show. With the offensive line in way over their heads after giving up six sacks in the first half, the 49ers inexplicably continued to go with a pass heavy attack. Kaepernick looked skittish in what was supposed to pass for a pocket after running for his life most of the afternoon. He’s now been sacked more than any QB in the NFL. Most of the fans blame seems to focus on offensive coordinator Greg Roman. While the play calling has been very questionable for most of Roman’s tenure, this is Harbaugh’s offense. Roman relays the play calls to Harbaugh who relays them to Kaepernick. (Yes, this is also why the offense occasionally breaks the huddle with 13 seconds left on the play clock) Harbaugh has full veto power. The plays you see run on the field are as much Harbaugh’s decision as they are Roman’s. In all likely hood if the team fired Roman and hired a new OC the offense might look remarkably similar. It’s absolutely imperative for Harbaugh and Roman to get this offense in a rhythm. If the o-line is struggling mightily to protect the QB, don’t call a five or seven step drop on first down. Get Kaepernick in a rhythm throwing the ball and get his confidence up. The o-line has been terrible at protecting the passer. They have been somewhere between adequate and good at run blocking. Get Gore (and Hyde) more involved. There is simply too much talent at the skill positions for this offense not to succeed.
The defense on the other hand has been the exact opposite. The offense has a wealth of riches in talent and health but can’t seem to find its stride. The defense has been decimated by the absence of impact players, but is still allowing the second fewest yards per game in the NFL. The Rams only managed 193 yards but still came away with a victory. Rookie mid round draft picks Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland have stepped into significant roles and been very effective. Free Agent signee Antione Bethea has been arguably the best safety in football. Vic Fangio has truly been the anti-Greg Roman. He has not only weathered the storm of missing all pro’s, his defense has absolutely thrived.
After losing to a 2-5 team at home on Sunday the 49ers now travel to New Orleans. It appears the odds are stacked against them. The Saints are hot, coming off of two big wins, defeating the Packers and the Panthers by three touchdowns each. They’ve had 10 days to prepare for the visiting 49ers. The game is at 10am San Francisco time and the Saints enjoy one of the NFL’s biggest home field advantages. The defense has to play another exceptional game to try and contain Drew Brees and the Saints high flying offense. And they’ll have to do it while short handed. Add Patrick Willis, who will miss his third straight game, to the list of missing defensive super stars. The Superdome is going to be deafening and the offense is going to need to somehow move the ball. The running game needs to make an appearance. The offensive line has to play at least competently to keep Kaepernick upright and somewhat comfortable in the pocket. After leaving a win on the Levi’s Stadium turf last week, the 49ers must now attempt to go into one of the most hostile environments in the NFL and somehow steal a much needed victory.