49ers vs. Saints: 5 Ways Alex Smith Can Succeed

Scott DaileyContributor IJanuary 9, 2012

49ers vs. Saints: 5 Ways Alex Smith Can Succeed

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    With the New Orleans Saints' lopsided margin of victory on Saturday, it was a bit hard to remember that New Orleans trailed 14-10 at halftime.  Moreover, close inspection shows that the Saints' defense may be vulnerable in ways that 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and his receivers can exploit at Candlestick Park this Saturday.

    Here are five ways that Smith and the 49ers can beat the Saints' pass defense and bring home a victory for San Francisco.

    As always, chime in with your comments!

1. Split the Zone

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    New Orleans' zone defense revealed a lot of seams, especially across the middle, where Detroit's excellent wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew got free for gains in the neighborhood of 20 yards. 

    Defensive responsibility in the middle of the zone often falls to the linebackers, who frequently lack the speed to keep up with fleet receivers. Well-timed routes across the middle can result in holes and mismatches, as they did last Saturday. 

    Both wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis should be able to exploit the Saints' linebacking crew for medium-sized gains that will fit well within the 49ers' overall ball-control scheme.

2. Beat the Blitz with Screen Passes

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    Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was victimized by the New Orleans blitz in the second half, but also occasionally had success throwing to check-off receivers out of the backfield. 

    With running back Frank Gore's excellent hands, the screen pass should be an effective weapon on Saturday.  Not only will it go a long way toward neutralizing the safety blitz, but simply the threat of throwing to a backfield receiver should move the linebackers up and clear out space over the middle.

3. Play Ball Control

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    If there were ever a game for the 49ers' ball-control, West Coast style, this is it. Think back a week to Stanford's strategy versus explosive Oklahoma State. The Cowboys would score quickly, and the Cardinal would answer with a slow, patient drive that rested the defense and kept OSU's offense off the field.

    The 49ers need to do the same thing this Saturday. Handoffs to Frank Gore, short routes over the middle and screen passes in the flat will keep the ball moving while also keeping Drew Brees and his two favorite receivers, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, on the sidelines.

    Under no circumstances can the 49ers be drawn into a shootout. If the Lions had a critical flaw in their offensive plan on Saturday, it was an over-reliance on the passing game. 

    Part of it happened because they got behind, which is a tough position to be in against the Saints. But for whatever reason, in the second half the Saints could virtually ignore the Lions' running attack. That allowed them to blitz frequently and effectively. The 49ers can avoid that by mixing the run and the pass, and emphasizing short gains and long drives.

4. Let Frank Gore Do His Thing

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    In the regular season, the Saints' run defense gave up an average of five yards per carry. Frank Gore left, Frank Gore right, Frank Gore chatting with the cheerleaders—it's all going to work. 

    My best advice to Smith and offensive coordinator Greg Roman is to hand the ball to Gore until the Saints demonstrate they can stop him. It may not happen all day.

5. Don't Be Afraid to Throw Long

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    Saints left cornerback Jabari Greer had two interceptions on Saturday—definitely something to think about. 

    On the other hand, safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Patrick Robinson looked vulnerable. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson split them in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown in the first half, and later burned Jenkins and Greer for a 42-yard catch at the 2-yard line. Rookie wide receiver Titus Young also had cornerback Tracy Porter beaten on a deep sideline route, but couldn't hold onto the ball.

    During the regular season, the Saints' passing defense ranked 15th in the league—the definition of mediocre. New Orleans' pass defenders gave up almost 260 yards per game. As I wrote last week, an average day by the Saints' pass defense should translate into a rewarding performance by Alex Smith and the 49ers receivers.