SANTA CLARA — The San Francisco 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher in every game this year except for the opener.
On Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, they nearly allowed two.
Mark Ingram ran for 158 yards and Tim Hightower added another 87 as the Saints scampered to a season-high 250 rushing yards en route to blowing out the Niners, 41-23.
“I think it’s everybody’s fault on the defensive side,” head coach Chip Kelly said when asked if he’s losing faith in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. “I think we’ve got to do a better job at putting our players in a position to make plays. That’s all of us, that’s me. That starts with the head coach, I don’t blame one single person for that.”
It was a matchup of pitiful defenses as Colin Kaepernick had his best start by far since taking the reins to Chip Kelly’s offense in Week 6.
Playing in front of a sparse crowd that was slow to arrive and early to leave, the Niners defense held early, forcing the Saints to punt on their first drive.
Kaepernick put together a decent opening drive that made it to the New Orleans 31 after Quinton Patton took a shovel pass 25 yards. But the march stalled there and Phil Dawson was brought out to hit a 48-yard field goal, putting the home team on the board first.
Drew Brees and the Saints offense got on track on their second drive of the game, converting on third down deep in their own territory allowing them to eventually cap their 10-play, 83-yard drive with a touchdown.
Kaepernick took an ill-advised risk the next time the Niners took possession and threw an interception to linebacker Craig Robertson. Brees took advantage of the turnover by hitting Michael Thomas on a back-shoulder throw to give the Saints a seemingly insurmountable 14-3 lead.
Turnovers were an issue for the 49ers throughout the game. In addition to the pick, they lost two fumbles and went 0-for-1 on fourth down in the red zone.
“We’re not good enough on the defensive side of the ball to turn the ball over like that.”
Trailing 21-3, Kaepernick found DuJuan Harris — starting in the place of an injured Carlos Hyde — on a swing pass for a 47-yard touchdown.
But as has been the theme all season, a good thing for the 49ers was followed immediately by an embarrassing event. This time it was Ingram, busting a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive. He hit a large hole inside the right guard and only had to make one slight cut to get himself a clear lane to the end zone.
Aside from the interception, Kaepernick had a solid first half. He threw for 286 yards, going 14-for-18. He led the team down the field for another field goal late in the second quarter to put the Niners down two scores. Then, after the defense induced its second Saints punt of the game, Kaepernick made the right read to Vance McDonald on a crossing pattern. McDonald ran 60-plus yards after the catch to reach pay dirt, making the game 28-20.
Kaepernick played well, but Brees ultimately won the quarterback battle. After Kaepernick missed on a handful of throws — he went 0-for-9 over one stretch — that forced the home team off the field, Brees hit Thomas with a beautiful throw over Tremaine Brock, who was unable to get his head around and make a play on the ball. Thomas bobbled it around Brock’s head, ultimately gathering it as he hit the ground. The score put New Orleans up 38-23 with a little more than 13 minutes left.
The Niners wouldn’t score again as they fell to 1-7. Despite having the second-worst record and the worst defense in football, Kelly said after the game that he has no plans for replacing O’Neil.