San Francisco 49ers: 5 Things Niner Fans Wish ESPN Pundits Would Acknowledge
The media sings praises for Drew Brees and the potent New Orleans Saints offense, but is failing to recognize some of the most crucial facts leading up to their matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
As a result, many pundits are predicting a Saints victory based solely on Drew Brees' unprecedented statistical season.
I can't say I'm particularly surprised—football fans around the country have neglected to give the Harbaugh-led Niners the respect they deserve all season long. I wouldn't expect that to change when they face America's darling New Orleans Saints.
As this ESPN First Take clip illustrates, many so-called "analysts" focus only on New Orleans' fearsome aerial attack, while ignoring every other facet of the upcoming game.
Here are the five stats and trends Niner fans wish ESPN pundits would acknowledge before they pick the Saints against the 49ers this weekend.
Alex Smith Does Not Make Mistakes
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Alex Smith threw a measly five interceptions over 445 attempts in 2011 for an outstanding interception rate of 1.1 percent.
Moreover, these absurdly low totals were not a fluke. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Smith posted a 1.0 percent Bad Decision Rate, which measures the number of interceptions or near-interceptions as a percentage of overall attempts.
Anything under two percent is considered good, and one percent is nearly unheard of.
Smith has not received the high praise of quarterbacks like Brady, Brees or Rodgers this season mostly because of his status as a "game manager" rather than a high-profile passer who can carry a team.
The thing people tend to overlook is that even if Smith is merely a game manager, he is a damn good one. Consider that Smith has thrown as many interceptions as he has engineered fourth quarter comebacks, at five apiece—pretty impressive for a supposed second-rate signal caller.
No. 11 is not a player to be discounted, especially with the ball in his hands late in the game.
Turnover Battle Favors San Francisco
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The San Francisco 49ers created the most takeaways (38) and had the fewest giveaways (10) of any team this season, waltzing to a dominant plus-28 turnover differential.
The Saints on the other hand settled for a mediocre minus-three differential, 19th in the league.
The defense was mostly to blame for the negative split. New Orleans' secondary was consistently unable to convert interception chances into turnovers. Per ESPN's KC Joyner, the Saints dropped 16 of their 35 "interception chances," or nearly half of their opportunities.
The combination of a careful Alex Smith with the far from opportunistic Saints defense bodes well for the Red and Gold.
The cherry on top: San Francisco has not committed a turnover since their Thanksgiving Day loss to Baltimore seven weeks ago. Over that span, the defense has created 12 takeaways.
While everybody talks about how New Orleans is hot, the 49ers are on a dominant tear of their own, one that is certainly less glamorous but is often a stronger indicator of victory.
San Francisco Holds a Huge Special Teams Edge
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
San Francisco owes a lot of its success to its No. 4 ranked special teams, best amongst playoff teams. Ted Ginn and Andy Lee have been handing the 49ers a noticeable field-position advantage throughout the season, and David Akers set a new NFL single-season scoring record with his 44 field goals, including hitting 7-of-9 from 50 yards.
By comparison, the Saints have been relatively weak on special teams. They feature a dangerous return man in Darren Sproles, but otherwise lack in excellence at the specialty positions.
Statistics reinforce the tale. Football Outsiders ranks San Francisco at No. 4 and New Orleans at No. 13 in their weighted DVOA metrics, measuring how special teams prowess translates to points.
More tellingly, San Francisco holds the edge over their counterparts in all five relevant categories (kickoff, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns and field goals).
Expect the 49ers to dominate special teams this weekend, which could give Drew Brees and the Saints offense a long field more often than they would like.
49ers Offense Has Plenty of Its Own Firepower
Jay Drowns/Getty Images
For all the talk about how San Francisco will be hard-pressed to keep up with New Orleans offensively, relevant offensive numbers tell a completely different story.
San Francisco has averaged 27.6 PPG at home this year, and have scored at least 20 points in each contest.
New Orleans has scored 27.3 PPG on the road this season. Against the only two defenses in the top 15 that they played on the road—Tennessee and Jacksonville—New Orleans scored 22 and 23 points, respectively.
Against San Francisco's No. 2 ranked defense, one that didn't allow a rushing touchdown until Week 16, New Orleans and its dome offense could be hard-pressed to even reach that total.
San Francisco's offense, on the other hand, should have no trouble putting up 25-plus points against the mediocre Saints defense, whose porous secondary could make Alex Smith look like Tom Brady.
With Michael Crabtree starting to look like a first-round wide receiver with his strong performances over the past three weeks, and Kendall Hunter emerging as a viable compliment to Frank Gore, San Francisco is poised to take advantage of the Saints' 30th-ranked pass defense.
As odd as it may seem, the 49ers may hold the advantage even as scores creep into the 20s and 30s. San Francisco has proven capable of consistently putting points on the board, while its defense has kept even dynamic opponents like the Eagles and Lions under 24 points.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
It's been a long time coming for 49er faithful. Players and fans alike have suffered through years of false hope and missed chances. The atmosphere is sure to be electric Saturday afternoon, which will likely make San Francisco's already formidable defense even tougher.
Unlike many of the newer, nicer stadiums around the country, Candlestick provides more than just crowd support as its home-field advantage. The muddy surface, swirling winds and damp air make San Francisco a tough place to play for opponents used to more pristine field conditions.
While Alex Smith, Andy Lee and David Akers are all well-accustomed to the local charm, Drew Brees, Thomas Morestead and Garrett Hartley could have some trouble adjusting to the outdoor setting.
A misfired pass, punt or kickoff could turn a standard play into a disaster, a trap the Saints are much more likely to fall into than the 49ers.
And if the Saints are closing in on a victory, we know our friends at PG&E can help out the hometown heroes with a well-timed power outage.