SCOUTING REPORT: For the first time in a while, the Saints might not be the more desperate team on the field Sunday, but this remains a win they really need.
Sean Payton wasn’t shy about sharing his message for this week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. There was no need to pull punches.
This is a desperation game. Not just for the Saints, but also for the 49ers. Both teams enter 4-4. One of them will leave under .500 with their season on the brink.
“Obviously you see a sense of urgency no different than ourselves,” Payton said. “There are two teams here that are 4-4 that are battling. You have half a season of football left — that’s a lot. And this will come down to the little things — the turnovers, some of the special situations we talked about, third-down rush, field position — all of those things I think will play a big part in the game.
“I said from the very beginning, we’ll get a very hungry team because, coming off of a loss, it’s something else.”
The 49ers might not be the team they were last year. That edition advanced to the NFC title game, losing to the Seattle Seahawks 23-17. This one is fighting to stay alive and has lost its past two games.
But some things haven’t changed. Despite its struggles to win games and missing linebacker Aldon Smith, who has not played this season because of a suspension, San Francisco still features one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL.
The 49ers rank second with 291 yards allowed per game and 10th with 13 takeaways. But despite its success, San Francisco has allowed an average of 22.3 points per game, placing it 15th in the NFL.
Even though San Francisco has struggled recently and has allowed a disproportionate amount of points, the Saints are approaching the 49ers as if they are going through a rough patch. They view this team as a dangerous unit capable of bouncing back at any moment.
“I don’t think there is any good time to play them,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Listen, they are a good football team. The fact that they’ve lost the last two games, we know that feeling around here because it happened to us just a little bit earlier in the season. You know the type of sense of urgency there is in their locker room.”
Know your opponent
The San Francisco front seven has been without linebackers Patrick Willis at times and Aldon Smith for the entire season, but this group still has the ability to make things uncomfortable on quarterbacks — just not on same the level it once did.
Though he hasn’t recorded a sack, defensive end Ray McDonald leads the 49ers with 20 pressures. He’s followed by linebacker Aaron Lynch (17 hurries), and defensive end Justin Smith (16). As a group, San Francisco has recorded 96 pressures — 28 fewer than New Orleans has this season.
For the sake of reference, last year, with Smith and Willis as fully functioning members of the defense, the 49ers averaged nearly 17 hurries per game. This year, they are averaging 12.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers are facing the opposite problem: They can’t keep pass rushers out of the backfield. San Francisco has allowed 78 pressures, 12 quarterback hits and 27 sacks. That could be good news for a Saints defensive line that has found its stride in recent weeks.
If this group can keep things going and the offensive line holds strong, New Orleans should prevail in the trenches.
Three and out
1. More Ingram: The debate over whether the Saints should use Mark Ingram as the lead back or employ a committee might remain tabled for another week. But this will be a big test because the 49ers have allowed only 85 rushing yards per game.
2. Hicks up: Akiem Hicks came to life last week against the Panthers, recording three hurries and a sack, and should have an opportunity to keep things going this week. San Francisco’s guards have struggled at times, and third-round pick Marcus Martin is slated to start at center after Daniel Kilgore suffered a season-ending ankle injury last week.
3. Stills run: Second-year receiver Kenny Stills has upped his game recently, catching 19 passes for 232 yards over the past three weeks, but can he keep it going after suffering a thigh injury that limited him last week against the Panthers? If he can, it will go a long way toward helping the Saints move above .500.
OUT: RB Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder), RB Khiry Robinson (forearm), LB David Hawthorne (ankle)
-- Thomas and Robinson are missing their third straight games with injuries suffered in the loss at Detroit on Oct. 19. Hawthorne’s missing his second in a row after hurting himself in the win at home against Green Bay on Oct. 26.
Questionable: T Zach Strief (chest), RB Mark Ingram (shoulder), C Jonathan Goodwin (knee/ankle), WR Robert Meachem (ankle)
-- Ingram and Goodwin were limited all week, but it seems likely they’ll play. Strief rotated in on individual positional drills at the end of the week. Meachem sat out Wednesday and Thursday.
Probable: TE Jimmy Graham (shoulder), WR Kenny Stills (thigh)
-- Graham has had a shoulder injury since Oct. 5 but hasn’t missed a game. Stills hurt his thigh Oct. 30, was limited in practice but should be fine.
Questionable: LB Dan Skuta (ankle), LB Patrick Willis (toe), CB Tramaine Brock (toe), WR Brandon Lloyd (hamstring), DT Quinton Dial (eye)
Probable: RB Frank Gore (hip), NT Ian Williams (shin)
Ramon Antonio Vargas: Saints 26, 49ers 23
There are some similarities between the 49ers and the Panthers team the Saints beat in their previous game. While the 49ers tote a better defense that can keep the game closer for longer, the Saints will find a way to overcome in their fortress and register a third straight win against a San Francisco franchise that has caused this city a lot of heartache through the years.
Nick Underhill: Saints 28, 49ers 20
The Saints know what a snake-bitten team looks like. They recently were one. The ball wasn’t bouncing their way during the first six games and, even when it did, they found a way to give it back to their opponent. That makes the 49ers scary. This is a talented team that has nothing to lose. But the Saints appear to have figured things out, and this one is in the Superdome. You don’t pick against the Saints in the Superdome.
Scott Rabalais: Saints 24, 49ers 14
Three weeks ago, the Saints were at a low ebb, and the 49ers were looking like an NFC power broker. Since then, the 49ers have been blown out at Denver and blew a game to St. Louis, while the Saints whipped Green Bay and Carolina. It’s a game of momentum, and that and a super Dome-field advantage are on the Saints’ side.