49ers vs. Saints: 5 matchups San Francisco needs to exploit

Deebo Samuel #19 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Deebo Samuel #19 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /
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Emmanuel Sanders, 49ers
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

No. 2: Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel vs. Saints cornerbacks

The weaker part of the Saints defense is, by comparison, in stopping the passing game. Some of this is alleviated by their pass rush, which according to Football Outsiders, is seventh in the NFL in adjusted sack rate at 8.2 percent and has racked up 40 total sacks in 2019.

If you can beat the pass rush, however, their defensive backs have been fairly pedestrian this season.

Third-year cornerback Marshon Lattimore had a fantastic rookie season, but has slowly been declining in terms of his play since. His Pro Football Focus grades for this season (68.4 overall, 69.5 coverage) pale in comparison to his rookie campaign (86.1, 87.9). He’s giving up completions on almost 60 percent of his targets, and allowing 14.3 yards per catch. He also has just one interception in 2019.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

On the other side is another former first-round pick, fourth-year corner Eli Apple, who has been shaky throughout his time with the New York Giants and now the Saints. Apple has actually shown himself to be a better run defender than in coverage, at least according to PFF, which isn’t really what you’re looking for in a cornerback.

Apple’s PFF grades sit at 68.0 overall, 79.7 against the run and 64.2 in coverage. He should be a guy 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will look to attack often on Sunday. The Saints cornerback has only four passes defended and no picks on the year.

To make matters worse, the starting slot corner isn’t much better. P.J. Williams is in his fourth season with the Saints since being drafted in the third round in 2015 out of Florida State, and while his role has increased, his production has not.

Williams is allowing receptions on 66 percent of his targets for 453 yards (14.3 YPC), including 149 after the catch. His best PFF grade comes as a pass-rusher (91.7), where he’s been used on 30 snaps this season. Everywhere else, including run defense (48.4) and in coverage (45.6), Williams has been a liability.

The slot corner does have one interception, although it came in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their turnover-friendly quarterback, and three other passes defended. But overall, this is likely the weakest unit on the entire Saints team.

If the 49ers can handle the pass rush, either with a solid performance from its offensive line or scheming up quick throws, the 49ers wide receivers, especially Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel, should be able to feast.

Sanders already has 21 catches for 250 yards in six games with the 49ers, and 16 of those receptions have been for first downs. He’s shown an ability to create separation, something Lattimore, Apple and Williams have struggled to stop.

In Samuel’s case, the 49ers rookie receiver out of South Carolina has shown himself to be consistently solid and often spectacular throughout his first NFL season. He has 42 catches for 564 yards so far with three touchdowns, and in spite of seven drops, continues to be one of Garoppolo’s favorite targets. Of his receptions, 23 have been for first downs.

The 49ers passing game should be able to take advantage of this unit, provided Garoppolo has time to throw.