© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not all that easy to beat the New Orleans Saints, let alone in the SuperDome. Over the last three years, they are a combined 34-11 (75.5 percent), and 20-6 (77 percent) at home, with one of those losses being the infamous NFC Championship against the Los Angeles Rams last season, which was lost on a blatant missed pass interference call.
But the 49ers accomplished the feat of a road win in New Orleans on Sunday, and temporarily took hold of the top spot in the NFC. It wasn’t on the back of their top-ranked pass defense, either.
Drew Brees threw for 349 yards and five touchdowns. Some of that had to do with the loss of strong safety Jaquiski Tartt to a fractured rib, and the poor play of his replacement, Marcell Harris, along with late injuries to K’Waun Williams and Richard Sherman.
Instead, it was Kyle Shanahan’s offense which took a necessary sledgehammer to the New Orleans defense, tallying 516 total yards (second-best on the season).
Shanahan schemed brilliantly. It was probably his most impressive performance of the season, outside of his nearly game-costing decision near the end to run a tricky play-action pass rather than running the ball with less than three minutes remaining and the 49ers in the red zone.
He utilized disguised passes brilliantly and designed crucial, massive run plays when necessary for an oddly quiet 162 yards on the ground.
The smartest part of that 6.75-yard per carry running attack was that Shanahan rushed with Tevin Coleman just three times. Since his 105-yard rushing performance against the Carolina Panthers, Coleman has just 52 carries for 128 yards, a woeful 2.48 yards per carry average. Instead, Shanahan has called the hot hands of Raheem Mostert (10 carries, 69 yards, 1 TD), and the finally-almost-healthy Matt Breida (6 carries, 54 yards).
But more than anything, Sunday was a validation of the fact that the 49ers have a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, who, if not definitively elite, is building a strong case that he’s in that upper echelon. At the very worst, he’s arguably a top-10 quarterback in the NFL.
Normally, Garoppolo can be counted on for one horrendous throw, or a head-scratching turnover outside of his usually solid performances. He committed no such transgression against the Saints. His only interception, while not perfectly thrown, probably should have been caught by Emmanuel Sanders, and even if incomplete, was the product of a fortuitous deflection.
Outside of that blip, he was ruthlessly efficient, and covered the football the three times he was sacked. He even got out of the pocket to dive for a crucial first down when nothing was there.
It’s worth reminding that this is a quarterback coming off a torn ACL, and while 28 years old isn’t young in the NFL, he’s currently embarking on what would be his first full season as a starter. What is evident is that he’s only improved with more reps, as was clear from the fact that he finished 26-of-35 with 349 yards (the same as Brees) and four touchdowns on Sunday.
Sanders called Garoppolo a “stud,” and said the team knows what they have in him, something Mike McGlinchey and other 49ers have said in prior weeks. As Richard Sherman said: “He played like the best quarterback in football today.”
What doesn’t show up in that box score are the multitude of throws into tight windows. He hit Sanders for at least two, and connected with Kendrick Bourne on a tough pass for his first touchdown of the day, along with some in-stride throws to Deebo Samuel and the 75-yard touchdown deep over the middle to Sanders. He also hit Kittle in stride on tight angle passes for both Kittle’s touchdown reception and for his all but game-sealing reception to set up the game-winning field goal.
Those names have been popping up plenty for the 49ers over the last five weeks. Even in the 28-25 loss to the Seahawks, it’s been clear that Garoppolo’s found three reliable wide receiving targets to complement Kittle.
Here’s how each of those four performed on Sunday, and what they’ve done over the last five weeks.
George Kittle: 6 receptions, 67 yards, 1 TD
Last three (injured against Cardinals): 14 receptions, 213 yards, 2 TD
Emmanuel Sanders: 7 receptions, 157 yards, 1 TD
Last five (injured against Cardinals): 17 receptions, 270 yards, 1 TD
Deebo Samuel: 5 receptions, 67 yards
Last five: 25 receptions, 402 yards, 2 TD
Kendrick Bourne: 3 receptions (all first downs), 18 yards, 2 TD
Last five: 16 receptions, 160 yards, 4 TD
Those numbers don’t tell exactly how much they’ve been used (and they’re imperfect due to injuries), but what is abundantly clear is that Garoppolo’s now got a triplet of reliable receivers. That showed up against the Baltimore Ravens with Sanders and Samuel playing nearly every snap, and Bourne playing in almost every three wide receiver situation.
Shanahan said last week of the three: “We feel those three guys have earned the right to be out there more than the rest. Our three guys have really started to separate themselves a little bit from the group.”
That’s a far cry from a preseason which started and ended with Shanahan impatiently waiting and imploring his receivers to stand out from the pack. The difference is not just in better routes and impressive catches, but it’s in Garoppolo’s trust that he can throw the ball into tight windows and someone will make the play.
In other words, it’s not Dante Pettis, nor is it Marquise Goodwin, both of whom were inactive with injuries on Sunday, and were the team’s starters at the outset of the season (Pettis was injured to begin the year, but took over the starting job from Samuel in Week 3).
Sunday was probably an anomaly of sorts. It’s unlikely the 49ers put up 40-plus points again this season simply based on the pace of play required to put up those numbers. But if Garoppolo and his supporting cast play how they did in New Orleans, the 49ers won’t lose another game.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the defense plays at poorly as it did on Sunday.
But the offense? With Shanahan’s scheming, Garoppolo as confident and efficient as he’s ever been, a No. 2-ranked run game which has at least 112 yards in each of the past three games, and a clear trident of wide receivers plus Kittle, there is a domineering offensive recipe now established in Santa Clara.