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Week 14 Game Recap: San Francisco 49ers 48, New Orleans Saints 46


What you need to know

San Francisco 49ers

The Saints defense decided to play zone mostly against San Francisco's pass offense. Although this did a good job of neutralizing George Kittle, it opened things up for the 49ers wide receivers. Said wide receivers passed that test with flying colors. In the fourth quarter, New Orleans shifted towards more man-to-man coverage, but the 49ers then ran and dinked-and-dunked them to death, culminating in Kittle beating backup safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson one on one on fourth down for what ended up being the game-winning play from scrimmage. It's as if this offense, with its play caller and players, can adapt to whatever a defense throws at them. (One massively important thing worth noting for the offense's immediate future is that their 13 fourth quarter points came after starting center Weston Richburg was replaced by journeyman backup center Ben Garland.)

New Orleans Saints

There have been some very good games this season, but this was by far the best so far. In what could easily be a preview of the NFC Championship game, the Saints and 49ers combined for 94 points and the most exciting game of the day. Drew Brees threw for 5 touchdowns and rushed for another with Michael Thomas and Jared Cook leading the way through the air. The only person the 49ers defense was able to stop was Alvin Kamara and the Saints rushing attack. The defense sacked Jimmy G 3 times and came down with an interception, but they could not get a final stop at the end of the game to come away with a victory. San Francisco kicked a field goal as time expired and the Saints fell to 10-3. They had already wrapped up their division and are only playing for a first round Bye and playoff seeding at this point. New Orleans will host the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night next week before closing out the season against the Titans and Panthers. A first round Bye is still in play even with this loss and will set up an exciting finish to the season.

San Francisco 49ers

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, 67 offensive snaps, Pass: 26 - 35 - 349 - 4 TD / 1 INT, Rush: 2 - 1 - 0
Garoppolo played about as flawless of a game as anyone could ask for against the Saints defense in New Orleans. He was pinpoint accurate, hitting receivers in stride across the middle of the field. He dropped two perfect short passes to his left into George Kittle's breadbasket, one for a touchdown and another for what in all intents and purposes won the game. And oh by the way, he did the vast majority of his damage with George Kittle being neutralized for all but a handful of plays. Garoppolo's one blemish in the box score, an interception on San Francisco's drive to open the second half, was the unlucky result of a tipped pass and a defender in the right place at the right time. If one absolutely had to pick nits, his 75-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders was almost all Sanders, as Garoppolo moderately underthrew the deep ball while under no pressure at all from the pass rush.

RB Raheem Mostert, 40 offensive snaps, Rush: 10 - 69 - 1, Rec: 2 - 40 - 1 (2 targets)
Whether because the 49ers were in their 4-minute offense for most of the game or because Matt Breida still isn't full healthy, or because he's simply earned it, or all three, Mostert surprisingly played more snaps than Breida and Tevin Coleman combined. And has been the case in recent weeks, he delivered a slew of timely big plays. To wit, 6 of his 10 carries went for 5 yards or more, and one of his two catches went gained 35 yards. There were two pairs of back-to-back plays wherein Mostert's exploits led directly to touchdowns. Midway through the second quarter, with New Orleans having just gone ahead 27-14, Mostert took an outside zone handoff mostly untouched for 19 yards. On the ensuing first down, Kyle Shanahan dialed up the same exact play, except this time with a fake handoff to Mostert and a pitch to Emmanuel Sanders instead. Sanders then threw it Mostert on his wheel route for a 35-yard touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Mostert converted a 3rd-and-1 thanks to an option pitch from Kyle Juszczyk (of all people), and then ran in a touchdown from 10 yards out on the next play.

RB Matt Breida, 12 offensive snaps, Rush: 6 - 54 - 0, Rec: 1 - 4 - 0 (1 targets)
Breida first touch didn't come until just before halftime, but it gained a crucial 28 yards that set San Francisco up for a scoring drive that gave them their first lead of the game. On the play, Breida cut back and accelerated through a huge hole up the middle. Kendrick Bourne blocked two Saints out of the play, which allowed Breida to get to the secondary and turn on the jets. Deep into the fourth quarter, San Francisco was able to extend their lead to 45-40 thanks to Breida picking up 15 yards on three consecutive carries that put his offense in chip shot field goal range.

RB Tevin Coleman, 11 offensive snaps, Rush: 3 - 6 - 0
With game flow quickly devolving into a back-and-forth shootout, Coleman hardly played. All three of this touches came on a single, 3-and-out drive early in the third quarter.

WR Emmanuel Sanders, 63 offensive snaps, Pass: 1 - 1 - 35 - 1 TD / 0 INT, Rec: 7 - 157 - 1 (9 targets)
Sanders' first four touches made it clear that he was designed to be the early-down chain-mover in San Francisco's game plan: 19 yards on 1st-and-10, 31 yards on 1st-and-15, a 75-yard touchdown catch on 1st-and-10, and then a 35-yard touchdown pass on 1st-and-10. That's nearly 85 percent of all the yardage and scoring he was involved in ... 21 minutes of game time into the afternoon. It's worth noting that these exploits were facilitated by New Orleans playing a ton of zone in the first half, which allowed Sanders to get open on the middle-of-the-field routes he's wont to run (and excel at).

WR Deebo Samuel, 53 offensive snaps, Rush: 2 - 33 - 0, Rec: 5 - 76 - 0 (8 targets)
Samuel had two big plays -- receptions of 20 or more yards -- during the first half, but his two most important plays came on the 49ers' first two scoring drives of the fourth quarter. Up 35-33 facing 3rd-and-5 at the Saints' 32-yard line, Samuel ran a 10-yard dig route across the face of cornerback Eli Apple, who was playing the deep right third in Cover-3. Apple got caught flat-footed, so Samuel was able to catch the pass in stride to gain 16 yards and a first down. Later in the fourth, while holding on to a 42-40 lead like grim death, Samuel took an end around down the left sideline for 31 yards, thereby flipping field position while also putting San Francisco in a position to extend their lead.

WR Kendrick Bourne, 38 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 18 - 2 (4 targets)
Though both were vital to San Francisco's chances of winning, Bourne's two red zone touchdowns were completely different stylistically. The first, which answered New Orleans' "hot knife through butter" opening touchdown drive, was designed to target Bourne's pivot route against the Saints' quarters coverage. He faked a 7-yard out route, pivoted off of Marcus Lattimore toward the inside, and made an easy catch for the score. In contrast, his second touchdown, which put the 49ers up 42-33 in the fourth quarter, resulted from everyone else being covered, and Bourne losing slot cornerback P.J. Williams in the back of the end zone during a sandlot scramble drill.

TE George Kittle, 62 offensive snaps, Rec: 6 - 67 - 1 (8 targets)
Kittle's two highlight-reel plays accounted for almost everything he produced in the box score, so one might ask: Why did he have such a quiet game otherwise? Well, in the first three quarters, all but three of his pass snaps involved either staying in to pass block or being expertly covered by the Saints' zone. The one time he wasn't expertly covered by said zone was the dive-at-the-pylon touchdown we all saw. In the fourth quarter, however, New Orleans started covering him man-to-man much more with a procession of defensive backs, which made it harder to get open. His main opponent was nickel safety Chauncey Gardner-JOhnson, who took great pride -- and demonstrably showed it -- in his success against Kittle. Then 4th-and-2 happened, wherein Gardner-Johnson was badly beaten on a quick out route, and then both he and the Saints' chances of winning were left in the dust after Kittle caught the ball.


New Orleans Saints

QB Drew Brees, 68 offensive snaps, Pass: 29 - 40 - 349 - 5 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 1 - 1 - 1
It was like watching vintage Brees this week as he carved up the 49ers defense to the tune of 5 passing touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown just for good measure. His favorite target continues to be Michael Thomas with 15 total targets, and he is finally using Jared Cook in the red zone with 2 touchdowns this week. Brees kicked things off with a touchdown on the opening drive to Cook. It went for 38 yards deep down the right side to his big tight end. He caught the ball 18 yards down the field and was able to run through a very poor tackling attempt from the 49ers defense for another 20 yards and the score. The second touchdown also went to Cook but came at the expense of his health. Cook made a diving 26-yard catch in the end zone but his hit in the head by a 49er defender. Unnecessary roughness was called on the play and the Saints elected to go for 2 and ultimately failed on the play. The scoring onslaught continued with a 3rd consecutive touchdown drive and a 20-7 lead. Brees found Josh Hill for a 3-yard touchdown. It was a 1-yard throw to Hill who had lined up as a fullback into the flat. The defense bit on the play fake to the inside and Hill was able to beat his linebacker in coverage the last 2 yards into the end zone. The next drive ended with a rare 1-yard rushing touchdown for Brees. Brees went up and over the line and extended the ball just over the goal line for the score to cap off a 12 play 84-yard drive. The Saints did not punt until late in the 2nd quarter and despite the offensive success, went into half time trailing 28-27. The Saints then played a very shaky 3rd quarter before Brees got back into a rhythm and scored 2 more touchdowns in the 4th. A 21-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas got the Saints to within 2 at 42-40 and was a beautiful throw to his favorite target. Brees hit Thomas on an out cut in stride with enough room to turn up field and score the touchdown. The pass went for 14 yards and he ran the last 7 yards untouched into the end zone. After a 49ers field goal, the Saints had to score a touchdown. With 1:00 left on the clock, Brees found Smith across the middle on a shallow drag route. From there is was poor tackling and a spin move by Smith to cap off an 18-yard touchdown. The ensuing 2-point conversion failed and left the door open for the 49ers to win it with a field goal. Brees gave the Saints everything he had this week and it was not enough as the defense failed to make a pivotal stop on the final drive of the game. There is still a lot left to play for and Brees has a good matchup against the Colts next week as they try and get back in the win column.

RB Alvin Kamara, 55 offensive snaps, Rush: 13 - 25 - 0, Rec: 4 - 18 - 0 (6 targets)
In what was an offensive explosion for the Saints, Kamara played next to no role this week. He averaged just 1.9 yards per carry and 17 of his 25 total rushing yards came on a single play. He had almost double the amount of carries as Murray and almost a third of the yards. Teams continue to bite on the play action to Kamara, but he has not been the same special player since his ankle injury earlier in the season. Kamara caught 4 of his 6 targets for 18 yards and still had fewer receiving yards than Murray with more targets and receptions. If the Saints can lock up a first round Bye, they may consider resting Kamara and making sure he is truly healthy for the playoffs when they really need him. Kamara also had a costly fumble in the 3rd quarter in what was a game to forget for the team’s lead back.

RB Latavius Murray, 24 offensive snaps, Rush: 7 - 69 - 0, Rec: 2 - 25 - 0 (3 targets)
Almost all of the rushing yards this week went through Murray. He averaged 9.9 yards per carry with his longest run going for 18 yards and having just 7 carries. He also outpaced Kamara in the receiving department with 25 yards on 2 catches. His first catch went for 30 yards and a big play with his second catch going for -5 yards. Murray has played great while Kamara has struggled in recent weeks. He has looked a lot more like Mark Ingram did last season than most would have expected in this offense. The Saints may consider using him more down the stretch and trying to rest Kamara’s ankle heading into the playoffs.

WR Michael Thomas, 70 offensive snaps, Rec: 11 - 134 - 1 (15 targets)
Another week and another big game from Thomas. The standout receiver caught 11 of his 15 targets and continues to trend towards breaking the single season receptions record. Thomas did not really get going until the 4th quarter when he made several big catches to help mount a Saints comeback. He had a 49-yard catch and run for what was the longest play of the game for the Saints and added a 21-yard touchdown catch. Thomas ran an out cutting route with Brees hitting him in stride 14 yards down the field. There was enough room from where Thomas made the catch and the sideline for him to turn up field and sprint the last 7 yards into the end zone for the score. This was Brees 4th touchdown pass of the game and brought the score to within 42-40 in the 4th quarter. Thomas leads the Saints in every receiving category this season and continues to do it while matched up against the opposing team’s top corners. Thomas has 121 receptions, 1,424 yards, and 7 touchdowns with 3 games left to go in the regular season. Look for a strong finish to what has been his best season so far as a pro.

WR Ted Ginn, 42 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 50 - 0 (6 targets)
Another week and another less than stellar game from Ginn. The Saints put up a lot of points this week, but Ginn did not play a big role. He caught 4 of his 6 targets and his only real big play was a 25-y7ard catch and run to setup a touchdown in the second half. Ginn had not made the long touchdown play in several weeks and continues to play more of a decoy than a true burner that takes the top off the defense. He tied for second on the team in targets, but it was Tre’Quan Smith that Brees went to in crunch time rather than Ginn. Cook and Thomas were the biggest offensive contributors and Ginn will have to wait another week before trying to find the end zone.

WR TreQuan Smith, 56 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 29 - 1 (4 targets)
The Saints still do not have a true #3 receiver in this offense, but Smith has been trying to fill that role. He caught 2 of his 4 targets for 29 yards this week and an important go-ahead touchdown late in the 4th quarter. He was also targeted on the ensuing 2-point conversion play, but the pass was broken up. Smith’s touchdown grab went for 18 yards but was a catch that should have been stopped much shorter. He caught a 5-yard drag route across the middle and broke one tackle before spinning out of another poor attempt and extending the ball into the end zone. The 49ers defense did not tackle very well this week and Smith benefitted from that greatly.

TE Josh Hill, 62 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 4 - 1 (3 targets)
Hill did not light up the box score this week, but he did come down with a touchdown. Brees found Hill wide open in the flat for an easy 3-yard score. He lined up in the back field as a full back and the play fake to Kamara sucked the entire defense to the middle of the field. Hill leaked into the flat and easily beat his linebacker to the goal line for the 3-yard score. He finished his day with 2 catches on 3 targets for 4 yards and a touchdown. He has been more of a blocking tight end all season and with the emergence of Cook in recent weeks there is no reason to think that will change.

TE Jared Cook, 8 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 64 - 2 (2 targets)
With touchdown catches on the first 2 drives of the game, Cook was in line to have his best game as a Saint this week. His first catch went for 38 yards and a touchdown. He ran a skinny post and caught the ball 18 yards down field before a poor diving tackle attempt by San Francisco let him rumble another 20 yards down the field for the score. His second catch went for 26 yards and was an amazing diving attempt into the end zone. Cook went full extension but left himself exposed to a helmet to helmet hit that left him with a concussion and ended his day. A penalty was called on the play and the Saints failed to convert the 2-point conversion with a Taysom Hill rush attempt on the next play. His return to the game was probable until he started showing concussion symptoms on the side line. He will have to clear the NFL concussion protocol this week before being able to return next Monday against the Colts.