In four of its last five games, the San Francisco 49ers have been forced to find ways to contain three of the league’s most mobile, agile and frustrating quarterbacks.
Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and, most recently, Lamar Jackson have given the 49ers headaches in recent weeks.
Like wet bars of soap, each of these three quarterbacks shredded San Francisco’s top-knotch defense by slipping out of its grasp. and creating plays with their legs.
This formula has led to two 49ers losses — one against Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks and the other against Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens last weekend.
In Week 14, however, the 49ers (10-2) will finally face a traditional pocket quarterback when they travel to New Orleans Sunday to take on the Drew Brees and the Saints (10-2). But beating New Orleans will be no easy task as they, too, are playing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC with home field advantage at stake in the postseason.
“We’ve got ourselves in a position where going into last week we could control our own destiny and we’re in that same position this week,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said “Nothing’s really changed on that.”
Along with that, here are three things to look for when the 49ers take on the Saints in a monumental NFC showdown.
Finally, a non-mobile quarterback
The 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams are the only two teams slated to face Murray, Wilson and Jackson in five of their 16 games this season.
So far, San Francisco is 2-2 in those matchups, losing to Seattle, 27-24 in Week 10 and 20-17 in Baltimore last Sunday.
The difference in each of those games were Wilson and Jackson, who were unbelievably hard to track in the backfield and sack when they had the ball in their hands.
In fact, Murray, Wilson and Jackson combined for 255 yards rushing against the 49ers in four games. This included a 101-yard effort from Jackson who also scored a rushing touchdown.
The good news for San Francisco’s defense is that it will finally get a break this week in New Orleans against Brees, who is not known to extend plays with his legs.
Rather, he is a much more traditional quarterback, who stands in the pocket and will take sacks when under extreme duress.
This season, the 49ers defense leads the NFL with 45 sacks in 12 games. This included a five-sack game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12. It was also the only game over the course of the last five weeks San Francisco didn’t face a mobile quarterback.
While the Saints rank ninth in the league this season with 254.1 passing yards per game, the 49ers defensive line will have a chance to slow production down with the help of defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa, who lead the 49ers with 10 and eight sacks, respectively.
Running the ball may be a problem
Along with the top pass-rushing defense in the NFL, the 49ers also have the second-most productive rushing game in the league this season.
Only behind the Ravens, who rush for a blistering 207 yards per game, the 49ers are averaging 148 yards per game on the ground. Unfortunately for San Francisco, however, the Saints are the third best team in the NFL against the run this year, allowing just 88.6 per game.
Last week, the 49ers saw running back Raheem Mostert, who has experienced trouble holding onto the ball throughout his tenure with the team, have a career afternoon, racking up 146 yards on just 19 carries.
With fellow running back Matt Breida nursing an ankle injury and Tevin Coleman getting extra attention from opposing defenses coming out of the back field, the 49ers will need Mostert to carry the momentum he built in Baltimore into the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
George Kittle will be instrumental in achieving this feat as the third-year tight end will start in his second game back from a chipped bone in his right ankle and lingering knee injury.
With his top-tier blocking abilities and attention-grabbing presence lined up as a receiver, Kittle will be one of the most important players for the 49ers offense on Sunday, specifically their running game against such a stingy defense.
Sherman expected to play
49ers fans took a collective gasp when they watched veteran cornerback Richard Sherman on the ground having his knee examined by the team’s medical staff in the second half against Baltimore.
On Monday, Shanahan revealed that Sherman suffered a knee sprain that would potentially put his availability at risk for Sunday.
According to the team, though, Sherman is on track to make the start against New Orleans and lead the NFL’s best defense during a heavyweight NFC battle on Sunday.
“Did some Mr. Miyagi stuff on him,” Shanahan joked. “Sherm always battles. You expect him to be out there and hopefully he’ll get better each day.”
During his weekly radio interview on KNBR Thursday, Shanahan told hosts that Sherman has been participating in practices and will be a game-time decision.
“By no means is he 100 percent healed,” Shanahan said, “He might get mad at me if I decide [he can’t play], which I totally understand, but it’s going to be hard for me to keep Sherm out if he keeps practicing like he has.”