BRADENTON, Fla — Saints coach Sean Payton believes his defense has their work cut out in order to stop the 49ers' high-powered run game, and that means focusing on tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Payton is quite aware that the 49ers rank second in the league in both rushing yards per game (207.8) and total rushing yards (1,776) through Week 13. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida or Raheem Mostert is carrying the ball as each has had their turn as the hot hand. Against the Ravens, Mostert carried the ball 19 times for 146 yards and a touchdown.
“With what Kyle Shanahan is doing, and his commitment to not only the running game, but the two-back running game,” Payton said. “You really have a tight and and a fullback that fit that exceptionally well.”
Payton was extremely complementary of Kittle, who has been effective as a run blocker while also being a very reliable target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle only had two receptions for 17 yards in Baltimore but what he did to open up lanes for the running game was apparent.
“Anytime you’re watching that team play, you’re seeing him on sting routes,” Payton said. “You’re seeing him on his run after the catch. His ability to separate and also block certainly put him at the elite level in this league right now. And he’s fun to watch.”
Payton remains equally focused on Juszczyk because of how Shanahan can use him in a variety of ways. The fullback’s stats in receptions and rushing yards do not reflect how effective he is on the field.
“He’s exceptionally smart,” Payton said. “He’s extremely productive. Whatever he’s doing, he does it well. He’s athletic, he can catch. Clearly he’s been the top, or if not, the top fullback in our league because he does so many things well.
“He can play off the ball, he can play in the backfield, he’s got fantastic football instincts. He’s fantastic as a fullback. When you watch their tape and you understand what they are doing in the run game and you understand some of the subtle adjustments that Kyle deals with when a front moves, or support or a gap change, he never surprises you and always seems to be doing the right thing.”
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The Saints could focus on stopping the run as Seattle and Arizona did, but they then run the risk of falling victim to Jimmy Garoppolo and the passing game. Payton says his team must remain disciplined.
“Their ability to run the football, their ability to score, and then conversely on defense with what they are doing, it’s super impressive.”