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Saints vs 49ers: Crunching the numbers

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Week 14 in the NFL features yet another huge game between very strong playoff hopefuls. The 49ers, who just slipped off the top seed in the NFC after a loss at Baltimore, are visiting the Saints at the Superdome with both teams at 10-2.

A loss could leave either team in a difficult situation. Fighting for a playoff berth at 10-3 just shows how competitive the NFC is this season, which sets up a brilliant set of postseason showdowns. However, one of the two teams will have more to play for. If San Francisco doesn’t win the West over the Seahawks, they’re likely to face the Cowboys in Arlington in the NFC Wild Card round. New Orleans, meanwhile, guaranteed the NFC South crown for the third straight year in a row with a Thanksgiving night win over the Falcons.

How do those two teams stack up against each other? You might have already figured out that they have more similarities than differences, and the numbers do support such a statement. Yet, those numbers often speak volumes about the favorites and underdogs in a game in a very clear and obvious way.

Dominant defensive units

Total defense – 270 YPG (SF; 1st in NFL) vs. 323.5 YPG (NO; 10th)

Scoring defense – 15.2 PPG (2nd) vs. 20.7 PPG (12th)


Sacks – 45.0 (2nd) vs. 40.0 (4th)

The highlights for both teams so far this season have overwhelmingly been on the defensive side of the ball. San Francisco has established its unit as perhaps the best in football, having allowed just 270 YPG, less than any other team in the NFL. The Niners are also the second-best scoring defense with 15.2 points per effort.

Nevertheless, the Saints don’t have too much to catch up on. They rank in the top 10 in least yards allowed per game as well as stopping the run at the 3rd-highest pace (88.6 YPG).

What could possibly make the difference here is the 49ers’ dominance in terms of takeaways, being 4th across the league with 24, in addition to a struggling Saints defensive unit against the pass, which ranks 16th – a disappointment, compared to the 49ers’ success in that field.

Turnovers against clean game

Turnover differential: +6 (8th) vs. +11 (3rd)


Turnovers: 18 (18th) vs. 7 (1st)

Interceptions: 10 (17th) vs. 6 (6th)

The 49ers have rightfully been a good team throughout the first 13 weeks of NFL football, and they’ve done that despite enormous turnover issues, which were even more problematic at the start of their campaign. Jimmy Garoppolo threw four interceptions in his first three starts, and against the Steelers back in Week 3 the team overcame season-high four turnovers for a 24-20 win on the road. Since then, he’s had just four ‘clean’ games and also recorded another 2-INT effort against Arizona three weeks ago.

This particular component represents a shocking difference between teams of similar caliber with New Orleans turning the football over just seven times. That’s an impressive feat given the injuries they’ve sustained – including a five-week change at QB and a couple of missed games by RB Alvin Kamara. There are reasons to believe that San Fran could be a tough task ahead for the Saints offensive line that protects Drew Brees – back in their loss to Seattle, Dre Greenlaw picked off Russell Wilson, who had a 23-1 TD-Int. ratio prior to that play.

Two huge matchups on Sunday

  • Saints WR Michael Thomas: 110 rec, 1290 yards, 11.7 YPA, 6 TD
  • 49ers passing defense – 134.2 allowed YPG (1st in NFL)

Most will put on Teddy Bridgewater as the player who was most important to the Saints having a 10-2 record, but few receivers are as impactful as Michael Thomas. Thomas turned a $96-million contract into a justified investment, leading the league with 1290 yards in reception and currently being the only WR in the NFL averaging more than 100 yards per game. He’s done that with a league-high 110 catches – the whole SF receiving core has combined for 116. That doesn’t tell the whole story though, as Kyle Shanahan has put the offensive focus on the running game as well as putting much of the production through the air on TE George Kittle, who leads the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards.

Thomas and the rest of a receiving group that includes Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre’Quan Smith will go up against the best secondary in the league. Whoever between Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley is assigned with Thomas, the team’s success might be defined by the Saints’ ability to methodically move the ball and cover their problems up with a solid Alvin Kamara-Latavius Murray running combo.

  • 49ers running backs: 148 rushing YPG (2nd)
  • Saints against the run: 88.6 allowed YPG (3rd)

Even more intriguing might be New Orleans’ task to stop an effective San Francisco ground game, which has been the cornerstone of the team through its ‘RB-by-committee’ approach. Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman combined for big contributions for much of the season, while last week belonged to the unit’s RB3 in Raheem Mostert, who ran over the Ravens for 146 yards from 19 carries.

The trio faces a dominant group against the run that allowed less than 90 yards per game on the ground. Given its importance to the rhythm of the offense, the 49ers desperately need to get it going on the ground in order to give Garoppolo the chance to be efficient with Kittle through the middle and quiet receiving corps.

The 49ers faced the 2nd-best rushing defense, the Buccaneers, back in Week 1, with Tampa Bay holding SF to 98 yards, third-worst up to date in a Niners game this season.

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