Friday, November 15, 2013

5 Burning Questions For Week 11

What a difference a week makes in the NFL.  Last week I opened 5 Burning Questions by saying the 49ers needed to stay hot to keep pace with Seattle for a shot at the division lead when their rematch rolls around in December.  After a tough loss to Carolina last week dropped them to 6-3, the 49ers now need to get back on track to stay ahead of several other teams for the NFC's sixth wild card spot.

On Sunday the 49ers will face the New Orleans Saints in the ultra tough Superdome.  Although the 49ers defeated the Saints down in NOLA last season, it should be noted that head coach Sean Payton was not on the sidelines as he served his season long suspension as punishment for a pay for pain scandal.  With Payton on the sidelines, the Saints are 14-0 at home since 2011, and with an average margin of victory of 22 points.  It's not hard to see why the Saints head into the game as 3 point favorites.

With that as a backdrop here are 5 burning questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome of the game.

1) Can Greg Roman stay balanced? - This is a question every week because the "mad scientist" has a tendency to stray from a proven winning formula about once every 3-4 weeks.  The 49ers offense is at its best when it is balanced, and that goes for more than just their run:pass ratio.

Sunday was the tale of 2 halves.  In the first half the 49ers run the ball 15 times, and dropped back ot pass 16 times.  Perfect balance.  That went away in the second half as they ran the ball only 6 times and dropped back 15 times.  It should come as no surprise that the 49ers gained only 45 yards in the second half and 4 in the 4th quarter.

The issue with balance goes beyond the run:pass ratio to the use of Colin Kaepernick.  While he is a dangerous weapon the 49ers offense, and Kaepernick for that matter, is at its best when it doesn't put the ball in his hands too often.  On Sunday Kaepernick had the ball in his hands for 16 of the 31 plays in the first half, and he completed 7 of 11 attempts for 52 yards.  In the second half they put the ball in Kaepernick's hands on 16 of the 21 plays and he completed only 4 of 11 attempts for 39 yards and an interception.  

Kaepernick is at his best when the running game is going.  His completion rate is 62.8% during games in which Frank Gore carries the ball 20 or more times, and it drops to 46.1% during games in which Gore gets less than 20 carries.

2) Can the 49ers get pressure on Brees? - Drew Brees comes into this game leading the NFL with 12 touchdown passes on throws to targets deeper than 15 yards downfield, and having thrown 2 or more touchdowns in his last 21 home games.  He's been on fire.

49ers fans can find some solace in the fact that Brees had his worst QBR since week 7 of the 2010 season against the 49ers last season at 26.2.  During that contest the 49ers defense pressured Brees 18 times and sacked him 5 times.  Another performance like that on Sunday would go a long way towards keeping the score close.

3) Will Tony Jerod-Eddie step up? - So far this week all signs point to Ray McDonald not playing on Sunday due to a high ankle sprain suffered against the Panthers.  If that ends up being the case, the starting left defensive end spot will fall to Tony Jerod-Eddie.

Last week against Carolina Pro Football Focus graded Jerod-Eddie as the best defensive lineman with an overall grade of 2.4, including a pass rush grade of 1.8 which will be key to maintain this week against New Orleans.

If McDonald ends up being completely inactive 49ers fans may finally see the debut of Tank Carradine.    This is definitely something to keep an eye on as we get closer to the game.

4) Will Vernon Davis and Eric Reid be ready to go? - Davis and Reid were both knocked out of the Carolina game with concussions, and are working through the protocol to try and get on the field for Sunday.

The availability of both is very important if the 49ers are going to have a shot to pull off the upset and while most would feel much more comfortable with Reid patrolling the secondary instead of Craig Dahl, Davis is probably the most important to their success.  When Vernon Davis is on the field Colin Kaepernick has a total QBR of 81.7, but that drops all the way down to 13.1 when Davis is not in the game.

5) How will the 49ers defense handle Jimmy Graham? - The Saints tight end has been among the most productive receivers at his position, and is now in his 4th season.  During their 2012 matchup the 49ers defense was able to hold Graham to only 33 yards on 4 catches.

During the game last season the 49ers would matchup a cornerback on Graham anytime he lined up outside, and with a linebacker when he lined up inside.  He was targeted a total of 6 times throughout the game, and 1 of those ended up being an Ahmad Brooks pick 6.

Prediction Time:

Saints 23 49ers 16

Going with New Orleans in what will be a tight game throughout this week.  I know the 49ers were able to beat the Saints down in the dome last season, but that was against a team playing without its leader and even with that it took 2 interceptions being returned for touchdowns to provide the margin of victory.

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