Saints Loom, But 49ers' Biggest Challenge is Own Execution

San Francisco offense needs to get back on track and eliminate mistakes, sacks and ineffective blocking

The New Orleans Saints are on a roll.

They’ve won 11 straight games at home and, after a 1-3 start, have won three of four to get to 4-4. Over their past four games, the Saints have scored 37, 23, 44 and 28 points.

So, when the 4-4 49ers go into the Superdome to play New Orleans (10 a.m. PST kickoff), San Francisco will be challenged.

In fact, NFL oddsmakers have made the Saints 5½-point favorites.

But the biggest challenge for the 49ers may not be the Saints but themselves. In losing two straight games to the Broncos and Rams, the 49ers have had tremendous trouble on offense. The running game has either been ineffective or absent, the offensive line hasn’t protected quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the Niners offense has been bullied, rather  than being the bully it’s been the past three seasons.

If the 49ers want to get back to the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the offense needs to solve those problems immediately, beginning with Sunday’s game.

Chief among the problems has been the performance of the offensive line. Over the past two games, Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times, including eight last week. Kaepernick has been sacked 27 times, in fact, the third-highest total in the league.

All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley this week acknowledged that the 49ers’ offensive problems begin with the play of the offensive line.

“We need to play more physical,” Staley told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “Get back to playing with that attitude, playing with that edge. I think that’s been missing the last few weeks.”

Finally, four of the line’s five projected starters are back together: Staley and Anthony Davis at the tackles and Mike Iupati and Alex Boone at the guard spots. But rookie Marcus Martin was pressed into a starting role last week after a season-ending injury to Daniel Kilgore, and didn’t have a good game.

The Chronicle’s Kevin Lynch – after reviewing game film – noted this week that Martin’s mistakes were many and costly. On Sunday, Martin’s going to need to play a much better game if the Niners’ offense is going to be effective.

Wrote Lynch: “You have to worry if he’s ready to be a full-time center. He gave up two sacks, it didn’t look like he was calling out adjustments, which puts more pressure on the quarterback, his run blocking was poor and his shotgun snaps were erratic.” Lynch also noted that on the 49ers’ final offensive play, the quarterback sneak at the goal line, Martin was pushed back by the defense, which disrupted the snap and may have led to Kaepernick’s fumble.

So, on Sunday, the 49ers will be challenged to stop the Drew Brees-led Saints offense and New Orleans’ home-field advantage.

But their biggest challenge will come from within. If they can get their offense back in gear, they’ll have a much better chance not only to beat the Saints, but make a run to the playoffs in the second half of the season. If the same offensive problems pop up again Sunday, the 49ers could be in for a very disappointing second half to this season.

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