A revamped offense has given the San Francisco 49ers reason to be optimistic. Despite having an even more prolific attack than the 49ers, the New Orleans Saints are having a harder time finding the bright side of the season’s first three weeks.
The new-look 49ers look to win three straight games for the first time in nearly two years on Sunday when they visit the Saints, who hope to bounce back from close losses in their last two games.
San Francisco ranked last in the league in points (219), scrimmage yards (4,162), touchdowns (24), first downs (218), sacks allowed (55) and third-down conversion rate (31.4 percent) in 2007, the team’s fifth straight losing campaign.
The 49ers addressed those issues by hiring offensive mastermind Mike Martz to be their offensive coordinator, and the move has already paid dividends. After a forgettable performance in a season-opening loss to Arizona, San Francisco (2-1) compiled 365 total yards in a 33-30 win over Seattle on Sept. 14 and 370 in a 31-13 victory over Detroit last Sunday.
The 49ers, who haven’t won three straight games in a single season since Nov. 5-19, 2006, topped 350 yards only once last season.
“We’ve got so much stuff in our offense now,” said running back Frank Gore, who ran 27 times for a season-high 130 yards and a touchdown last week. “It felt so great to move the ball like that. The pass game is a whole lot better, and the more we throw the ball, the better it is for me in the running game. It’s going to be crazy all year. We’re going to do a lot of good things.”
San Francisco’s success is riding primarily on Gore and journeyman quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, who’s made his first three career starts this season after spending the previous six years with seven different NFL teams. O’Sullivan completed 16 of 23 passes for 189 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against Detroit, and eight different San Francisco players caught at least one pass.
“I think guys really have the confidence now to know that everybody is going to have an opportunity to make plays,” receiver Arnaz Battle told the team’s official Web site. “Each play you don’t know who is going to be that guy. Everybody is excited about getting the ball.”
While San Francisco is up to 11th in the league in total offense with 342.0 yards per game, New Orleans (1-2) is fourth in that category (396.7), but has come up short in its last two games.
The Saints gave up 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a 29-24 loss to Washington on Sept. 14, and Martin Gramatica missed a potential go-ahead 43-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining in a 34-32 loss to Denver last Sunday.
“What’s hard about a game like this is there’s a lot left on the field,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Payton’s frustration stems mostly from his team’s struggles on the ground. New Orleans has been held to 143 rushing yards on 44 carries over its last two games, and was particularly ineffective in short-yardage situations last Sunday, failing five times to convert pivotal running plays when it needed to gain little more than a yard.
Those struggles could allow for Deuce McAllister’s return to the lineup this week. McAllister, a four-time 1,000-yard rusher with the Saints, has only two carries in one game this season after missing the last 13 games of 2007 to have surgery on both knees. He’s healthy, but Payton has been reluctant to throw the veteran back into the mix.
“Deuce’s playing time is coming, but at the same time, it’s got to come at the right time when I feel like he’s ready,” Payton said.
The Saints’ struggles on the ground last week overshadowed a strong performance from Drew Brees, who recorded his third career 400-yard game by completing 39 of 48 passes for 421 yards and a touchdown without an interception.
Brees, though, will be without one of his top targets for the foreseeable future. Tight end Jeremy Shockey will miss three-to-six weeks with a sports hernia. Shockey, acquired from the New York Giants in a trade shortly before training camp, had 16 receptions for 151 yards in his first three games with New Orleans.
Brees is undefeated in three career starts against the 49ers. He’s thrown for 858 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception in those games, including the Saints’ 31-10 victory last Oct. 28.
New Orleans has won seven of nine in the series, including four straight.