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New Orleans Saints defense will face multiple challenges from San Francisco's versatile offensive pieces

'When you've got play-makers like that in different areas, it's always going to create a challenge'

New Orleans Saints players in action during their 2022 Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
New Orleans Saints players in action during their 2022 Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams.

The San Francisco 49ers already had enough offensive cake that they likely didn't need to add ice cream, but they did anyway with the addition of running back Christian McCaffrey, a two-time All-Pro and one of the NFL's most versatile threats.

Few opponents know more about the running back than do the New Orleans Saints (4-7), who will play San Francisco (6-4) on Sunday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. McCaffrey spent his first five seasons in the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers, and has played eight games against the Saints – including Week 3 this season, prior to being traded to the 49ers on Oct. 20.

In two games with San Francisco, McCaffrey has run for 132 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, caught 10 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown and thrown a 34-yard touchdown pass.

But unlike the past, when New Orleans' defense could center its attention on McCaffrey as the focal point of Carolina's offense, it'll also have to deal with All-Pro receiver Deebo Samuel, who'll also line up in the backfield as often as McCaffrey might line up at receiver, All-Pro tight end George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, who leads San Francisco in receiving with 587 yards and six touchdowns.

"I think (San Francisco coach) Kyle (Shanahan) does a great job in terms of formulating a gameplan, putting pieces in position to be able to make plays," Saints Coach Dennis Allen said. "When you look at what they do, they use a lot of different players in a lot of different areas.

"You'll look up and you'll see Deebo Samuel lined up at the running back position, and the running back may be split out wide and looks like a wide receiver. They've got a good scheme, but I think they do a really nice job of utilizing their personnel."

"When you've got play-makers like that in different areas, it's always going to create a challenge," defensive back P.J. Williams said.

The major challenge, Allen said, is deciphering whom is doing what. And McCaffrey's versatility makes him a prime candidate for deception.

"First of all, you've got to identify, what is he?" Allen said. "Is he a runner? Is he a receiver? Are you going to match the running back up with a linebacker or a safety? And then what happens if he comes out of the backfield and now is he a receiver, is he a running back? I think those are all the challenges you face when you're dealing with stuff like that."

And Kittle, too, remains a large component to the 49ers' offense. In a four-season window from 2018-21, Kittle had two 1,000-yard years and a 910-yard season, and caught 18 touchdowns.

"He's a guy that they use in both phases, in the run game and the passing game," Allen said. "He's a good blocker in the run game, which is always a benefit in terms of being able to run the football. And then he's a weapon in the passing game.

"All these guys are really good with the ball in their hands, whether it be Deebo Samuel, or Christian McCaffrey, or George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk, those are just guys that they try to get the ball in their hands and let their athletes make plays. And they do a good job of that."

That will make it imperative for the Saints to be sure tacklers, because San Francisco can turn a short play into a long touchdown.

"A lot of times they don't even throw it down the field," Williams said. "They're running short routes and then they break it for 50, 60 yards. That's going to be big for us, to make sure we get them on the ground. If they catch it, it's got to be a catch and tackle."

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