BRADENTON, Fla. – The stakes are raised again this week, as the 49ers face the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a showdown of two of the three teams in the NFC with 10-2 records.
After the 49ers’ Week 13 loss to the Ravens, the club spent the week practicing at the IMG Academy to remain acclimated to the time change and feel rested and energized for the early kickoff in New Orleans.
Coach Kyle Shanahan remains impressed with the consistent approach his team has exhibited this season.
“They’ve made my job very easy,” Shanahan said on "49ers Game Plan," which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3). “They’re all pros. It’s important to them. And now, as it even gets tighter and you get closer to the playoffs, that’s really the last of my concerns -- these guys being ready for the games.
“They know what this is about. They know how hard we’ve worked to get here. No one wants to waste this opportunity that we’ve earned, so we got to keep playing. We know we got a good team. I just want guys to come out and not worry about anything. Just go as hard as you can, play like we’re capable. If we play with a clear mind and play hard, like I know we will, I’m pretty confident some good things will happen.”
Good things figure to happen for the 49ers on Sunday against the Saints if they get strong games from these five players to watch.
5. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo is coming on strong for the 49ers. He has compiled passer ratings of 110 or better in the past three games, and he has gone two games without throwing an interception.
Garoppolo and the entire offense will be challenged as they contend with the noise inside the Superdome on Sunday. Garoppolo must be decisive with his reads and decisions in order to avoid pressure coming from Saints defensive end Cam Jordan, one of the top edge rushers in the business.
The 49ers will try to get the run game going with some combination of Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert. The better the 49ers run the ball, the more effective Garoppolo should be in using play-action to get the ball down the field.
4. SS Marcell Harris
Second-year player Marcell Harris stepped in when starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt sustained cracked ribs Sunday in Baltimore. Harris immediately made a big play when he tore the ball away from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to create a takeaway.
Harris will have responsibilities against the run Sunday, as an eighth defender in the box on certain occasions. Also, he will be challenged in pass coverage when the Saints flood the field with wide receivers.
Harris and free safety Jimmie Ward must work well together to prevent Saints quarterback Drew Brees from hitting on big plays if the 49ers’ pass rush does not get home.
3. WR Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders has not been anywhere close to 100 percent for a while, as he’s been dealing with a fracture in his rib cage. This was the first week that he was not required to wear a blue jersey at practice, which signifies a player who is off-limits for contact.
While Garoppolo has been coming on strong and playing well, Sanders’ production took a dip after his injury. In six games with the 49ers, he has 21 receptions for 250 yards and two touchdowns. In his second game with the club, he had seven catches for 112 yards before sustaining the ribs injury a week later against the Seahawks.
Rookie Deebo Samuel has elevated his game, giving Garoppolo another trusted target. But as Sanders gets healthier, he has the ability to once again establish himself as the top wideout option.
2. LB Fred Warner
Fred Warner was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, as he made his presence felt both in the run game and as a pass defender. He is as good as there is at being an all-around linebacker.
This will be another tough challenge for Warner, as he will be matched throughout the game on Saints star Alvin Kamara, one of the league’s top dual-threat running backs. Kamara is equally dangerous as a runner and receiver.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has simplified Warner’s responsibilities as the defensive play-caller in the huddle this season, which has enabled Warner to just play football.
“Ever since kind of the midway point of the season, I think he has lined it up for me to just go out and play fast,” Warner said.
1. LT Joe Staley
Six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is back for the 49ers after missing nine of the team’s first 12 games with a fractured left lower leg and then a fractured and dislocated ring finger on his right hand that required surgery.
Staley returns for the stretch run of the season. He should be fresh and energized for the final four regular-season games and the playoffs. That could be a good thing. But Staley also is realistic enough to understand the considerable disadvantage of sitting out all those games.
“I missed out on two months of reps, two months of practices, two months of being on the details,” Staley said. “That’s what makes you good. It’s not just saving yourself for the playoffs. I missed out on a lot of work.”
Staley did not fare well when he returned for the team’s Nov. 11 game against Jadeveon Clowney and the Seahawks. And things are not going to be much easier Sunday, as the 49ers must deal with the noise inside the Superdome.
He will go up against impressive second-year player Marcus Davenport, mostly, while also seeing some of Jordan, who leads the Saints with 13.5 sacks.