Possibly, we'll learn as much about the New Orleans Saints (6-2) in Sunday's game against San Francisco (4-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as we learned about them in their last game, a 38-3 demolition of Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium.
How the Saints handled that success might determine how effective they will be against a banged-up 49ers team whose lineup is littered with stand-ins for starters.
It'll help that New Orleans hasn't forgotten that last season, San Francisco won a 48-46 thriller in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It'll help more that the Saints, winners of five straight, are chasing another NFC South Division title and have the No. 1 overall seed for the playoffs in their sight.
Here are a few ways in which New Orleans can take another step toward reaching those goals:
- THE EYES HAVE IT: The Saints are wary of what the 49ers can do as a run offense, and they should be. San Francisco's ability to deceive, to get defenders looking for one thing when it's running something else, has made it one of the best run offenses in the NFL the last three seasons. The Niners average 119 yards per game this season, but don't forget the 153.5 per game they rolled up last year. New Orleans is coming off a phenomenal defensive performance (eight rushing yards allowed on five carries) and, as usual, making an opponent one-dimensional is the top priority. That's the charge for linebacker Demario Davis, safety Malcolm Jenkins and the rest of the crew. New Orleans has to stay disciplined, make the right reads, and stuff the run. It allows 80.4 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the league, so it knows what to do.
- RIDE THE BREES: Offensively, the Saints were so good against Tampa Bay that losing two fumbles barely registered on the radar. A 38-point outpouring is what can happen when New Orleans has all of its parts available. It's also what can happen when quarterback Drew Brees is in the kind of zone he's in; in the last three games, he has completed 79 percent of his passes for 789 yards and eight touchdowns, without an interception. The 49ers are giving up just 218.4 passing yards per game, and have surrendered 16 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. But they coughed up 294 in their last game, against Green Bay. Brees is on a streak, and the Saints are benefiting immensely.
- BE QUICK TO NICK: Niners quarterback Nick Mullens (1,143 yards, five touchdowns, four interceptions, 68.4 percent completions) has performed admirably whether in relief of or as a starter for Jimmy Garoppolo this season. But if the Saints' pass rush could disrupt, rattle and frustrate a Hall of Famer like Tom Brady, you'd like to believe it can do the same against Mullens. The Saints sacked Brady three times – two by defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who has a team-leading 7.5 – and intercepted him three times. San Francisco, obviously, will want Mullens to throw quickly and on time, so the New Orleans secondary that mimicked flypaper against the Buccaneers can't let up just because San Francisco's faces are less recognizable nationally and the resumes aren't as impressive. Marshon Lattimore can be dominant when he puts his mind to it; consistency is the hallmark of greatness.
- PLAY CLEAN: Quietly, New Orleans drastically has chopped its penalties – 23 penalties for 250 yards during its five-game winning streak, after committing 24 penalties for 331 yards during its 1-2 start. The Saints aren't giving up nearly as many cheap yards or first downs, and aren't helping opponents extend drives. That's a good recipe for this one: The 49ers are limited by injuries, and the Saints don't need to aid their cause by clutching, grabbing or tackling after the whistle.
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