With Jerick McKinnon serving as their lead back and Nick Mullens as their quarterback, they had no running game (49 yards) and no downfield passing game. The result: They had 195 yards and three points in the final 44-plus minutes. Mullens is clearly a second-stringer and he had no first-class weapons beyond WR Brandon Aiyuk and TE Jordan Reed, his targets on 20 of his 38 passes. It didn’t help Mullens that the 49ers were not prepared to deal with the endless blitzes of DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who spent much of the afternoon in their backfield. It’s telling that a highlight was a 9-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 by TE Jordan Reed, whose one-handed, left-handed, off-the-turf catch was … kind of unbelievable.
Granted, QB Drew Brees was a spectator for the final two quarters, but they largely contained one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. The Saints had 237 yards, one TD drive longer than 22 yards and All-Pro WR Michael Thomas (two catches) was a rumor. As far as DT Javon Kinlaw: So that’s why he was a first-round pick. The rookie disrupted a screen pass, split a double-team to make a stop on 3rd-and-2 and had the first 1.5 sacks of his career. The decision to replace SS Marcell Harris, a liability in pass coverage, with Tavarius Moore helped lead to a lack of big passing plays: The Saints WRs didn’t have a catch longer than 15 yards.
Yuck. Two muffed punts led to TD drives of 21 and 22 yards and had Kyle Shanahan talking about using Aiyuk as the primary punt returner. First, Trent Taylor didn’t field a punt that bounced off CB Ken Webster. Next, Richie James bobbled a punt that extinguished any chance the 49ers had in the fourth quarter. And that wasn’t all: They also allowed a 75-yard kickoff return that led to a field goal, meaning their miscues led directly to 17 of the Saints’ 27 points.
Give Shanahan three extra days to prepare and watch him deliver a picturesque scripted opening: Their 13-play, 75-yard, seven-plus-minute, game-starting TD drive made you briefly forget their limited attack was facing a potent defense. It didn’t last. They never adequately adjusted to Gardner-Johnson’s off-the-edge pressure, which also helped limit their outside running game. Shanahan’s decision to hand off to McKinnon, in a shotgun formation, on 4th-and-1 was probably first-guessed by many.
They needed to get a few breaks and play nearly flawlessly. They got the former – the Saints’ muffed punt was a key part of their stellar first quarter – and New Orleans’ offense became nearly inert after Jameis Winston replaced Brees. But the 49ers, as currently constructed, may not beat the Jets if they commit four turnovers. It wasn’t going to happen against New Orleans.
— Eric Branch