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New Orleans Saints defense readies for challenge presented by San Francisco's run game

Saints allow 88.6 rushing yards per game, 49ers average 148

Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in November presented by Sony.
Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in November presented by Sony.

The objective is to make sure you don't see it coming.

That bit of sleight of hand by San Francisco in its running game has helped elevate the 49ers to the second-best running team in the league (148 yards per game). And it's what the New Orleans Saints (10-2) will be attempting to diagnose Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as the Saints look to establish control over the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

The Saints know a little about neutralizing opposing run games.

New Orleans allows 88.6 rushing yards per game, third fewest in the league. The Saints haven't allowed an individual 100-yard rusher in 38 games and in a five-game stretch this season, from Games 4-8, gave up 54.2 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.

But San Francisco can present unique challenges.

"They do a fabulous job rushing the football," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "They formationally give you a lot of different things, personnel groups. And you've got to move to these spots when you see the wide zone come, and then there's changeup plays off of it, and then of course the play action that comes from those same looks. Those all present challenges."

Further, the challenge is which running back will be doing the damage. Matt Breida (109 carries, 542 yards, one touchdown) and Raheem Mostert (92 carries, 539 yards, three touchdowns) headline it, but Tevin Coleman (120 carries, 454 yards, six touchdowns) adds punch and the 49ers average 33.3 rushing attempts per game.

"I would say that the trait that every one of these backs has is their home run speed," Payton said. "They're going to stress you horizontally and put the foot in the ground, and you're going to have to be able to really handle this wide zone and then then auxiliary runs that come from it."

San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan said the depth at running back has been as much necessity as luxury.

"We went through four running backs last year and it's always tough in this league at this position," Shanahan said. "We have four good ones that have helped in a bunch of ways.

"They all haven't been (active) each week. We usually take three into a game. We've been able to take four at times. They all do a little bit different stuff, similar to how Sean's used backs in the past, and they give us options."

Necessity or luxury, what the Saints have seen is one of the league's best running games, one that the 49ers hope will be problematic for New Orleans on Sunday.

"They hit the edges fast, and that's why we've got to set the edge with leverage on the ball, getting guys setting the wall in the run game and just running and hitting and really fitting up this run," said safety Vonn Bell, who leads the Saints with six turnovers – five fumble recoveries and an interception. "Because they can run it all day. That's what they've been doing to teams all year.

"With the turbo motion and all the shifts and motion before the snap and after the snap, they try to get with your eyes and they still run the same plays. They've got a certain amount of plays but they run it out of all personnel. You've just got to get ready to pick the run up and be ready to have good eyes with your keys."