METAIRIE, La. — When the Saints hosted San Francisco in a late November game a season ago, Colin Kaepernick and the read-option offense were just beginning to take over the NFL.
Few were sure just how much the read-option could affect a professional defense and even fewer people were sure what Kaepernick was capable of doing.
But then Kaepernick got the start against New Orleans, threw for 231 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 27 more and another score and the Saints lost 31-21.
Lost in the storyline of the young quarterback’s emergence, however, were Frank Gore and his 83 yards.
Sunday, when the Saints (7-2) once again host the 49ers (6-3) in a November NFC showdown, Gore’s role won’t be lost.
He’s sixth in the NFL with 700 yards and tied for second with seven rushing touchdowns. He averages 4.3 yards per carry.
“They’ve gotten away from the read-option,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “They still run it, but they know handing off is their bread and butter. That’s how they win. They run the ball, play great defense, get turnovers, opportunistic on offense.”
Indeed, Kaepernick is 18th in the NFL in quarterback rating (83.0), 29th in completion percentage (56.4) and 23rd in yards (1,675). His completion percentage is six full points lower than a season ago and his rating is 15 points below his 2012 rating.
San Francisco, in other words, has had to turn to Gore as it appears NFL defenses have figured out the young 49ers quarterback's passing inability. Not that San Francisco's failure to successfully pass the ball down the field is all on Kaepernick; indeed, the 49ers offense is without Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, both out with injuries early in the season.
But that doesn’t mean teams have figured out the entire 49ers offense, thanks in large part to what they do on the ground. San Francisco is No. 4 in the league in rushing the football, averaging 147.7 per game.
The Saints aren’t exactly stout against the run, ranking 22nd in the NFL by allowing 117 per game. They’re even worse per attempt, giving up an NFL-worst 4.99 yards per carry.
The last time New Orleans went up against a dominant rush-first team, the New York Jets rang up 198 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
“I think, just like against the Jets, as soon as they step off the bus they’re gonna run the ball,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “So as a defense we have to be gap-sound, can’t get creased, we’ve got to tackle well, we’ve got to overpopulate to the ball.”
And that gets back to containing Gore, not just containing the read-option. Gore, it should be noted, has feasted on the Saints in the past, averaging 4.48 yards per carry while rushing for 358 yards in five games.
“Got to find a way to tackle him,” said Saints linebacker Parys Haralson, who came to New Orleans from the 49ers in a preseason trade. “Me and Frank are friends. Being there and knowing how he practices and being on the sidelines watching him against other defenses, you know what he brings to the table. He’s a physical runner. He’s one of the best running backs I think I’ve seen play the game of football.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to point out that Kaepernick's passing numbers are down partly because he was missing two of his top receivers, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree.