BRADENTON, Fla. – When the 49ers acquired Emmanuel Sanders in an October trade from the Denver Broncos, they picked up more than just a reliable veteran wide receiver.
The 49ers added a voice of experience and reason to a group of receivers that includes no others who have played in the NFL postseason.
“I was telling guys, it’s time to cut out all the extra-curricular activities and just hone in on the season for the next, hopefully, two-and-a-half months and see if we can do something special around here,” Sanders, a 10-year NFL vet, said.
“I try to be here to be the voice of letting them understand why they feel the way they feel. Because when you get into those games and it’s like, ‘Man, this doesn’t feel like Week 4.’ Every single play matters, and you got to think that.”
The 49ers are 10-2 entering their Week 14 matchup against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 49ers currently are in a battle with the Saints and Seattle Seahawks, both also 10-2, for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The 49ers’ game Sunday marks the third consecutive game in which the 49ers faced a team with a winning percentage of .800 or better. The 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers, 37-8, in Week 12, before falling to the Baltimore Ravens, 20-17, last week.
“The past couple games there have been a lot of great experiences for guys who’ve never been to the playoffs, and guys who never really been in this type of situation,” Sanders said.
Sanders has appeared in eight playoff games, including two Super Bowls. While with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was on the losing side against the Green Bay Packers as a rookie. He had six catches for 83 yards in the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.
Coach Kyle Shanahan pointed out that the only other 49ers starter at a skill position – quarterback, running back, tight end or receiver -- who has started with another team is fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Therefore, Sanders serves an important role, similar to Richard Sherman on defense.
“To have a guy who’s been a starter at other places and also won a Super Bowl, that’s huge for us,” Shanahan said. “It’s very similar to what we say about Sherm. We have a bunch of young guys in the secondary who have played a lot of games, but when you have a guy who’s been through the postseason run, has been in championship games and played at a high level year after year, it always helps the guys.”
Sanders knows what it’s supposed to look like, and he believes the 49ers have a great opportunity in front of them with four games remaining in the regular season.
“I think we have a great chance,” he said. “We got players who definitely understand. We got players who know how to have fun. We have players who know how to lock in, as well. I think as each game goes on, we gain more and more experience of exactly how we want it to look and how Kyle wants it to look, going out and not taking any plays off, not only from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint.”
In six games since joining the 49ers, Sanders has 21 receptions (on 30 targets) for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He has battled through a ribs fracture sustained in his third game but is feeling much better now.
Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne have separated themselves from the team’s other wide receivers. Sanders clearly has gained an appreciation for what he’s seen from those two young wideouts.
“I’ll tell you what, K.B. and Deebo, man, they’re special,” Sanders said. “Watch how those guys catch the football. Watch how they run through the football. Those guys can score at any moment. That’s who they are. They’re just wired to catch the football really well.
“My job is to let them understand the importance, because they’ve never been in this situation. But I don’t want them to lose their personality and who they are. I want them to treat every single play like it could be the last play of the game and everything is on the line. They’re cool dudes and humble dudes. I’ve been enjoying being around them.”