San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints: Matchups Favor the Niners

Jon Siddoway@@JSiddowayCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2012

San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints: Matchups Favor the Niners

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    If the coaching thing doesn’t work out, Jim Harbaugh may have a future as a psychic

    I wonder how his handshake with rival Miss Cleo would go down.

    We may never know; the coaching thing is working out quite nicely. 

    After success at the college level, Harbaugh was hired as head coach of the 49ers in a five-year, $25 million deal.

    Expectations were high, and they were exceeded. 

    Quicker than it takes to make Top Ramen, he has transformed the team from pretender to contender. 

    His successful rookie season has the team back in the playoffs, well prepared to play the blazing hot New Orleans Saints on Saturday.  

    Before the Saints vs. Lions game, the coach admitted the team’s focus would be aimed at a specific opponent. 

    “More the Saints,” Harbaugh said during the interview. “The greater share would be preparing for the Saints.”

    Good call, coach. 

    After crushing the Lions 45-28, the Saints come marching into Candlestick to face the No. 2 seed 49ers, their polar opposite. 

    The Saints beat you through the air; the 49ers pound you on the ground. 

    The 49ers have a stingy defense; the Saints have a generous one. 

    The Saints score touchdowns in the red zone; the 49ers kick a lot of field goals.

    The 49ers excel on natural turf; the Saints’ natural habitat is inside a dome.  

    And on and on and on. 

    Let’s take a closer look at the matchups and locate the advantages for both teams. 

Saints Pass Offense vs. 49ers Pass Defense

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    To put it in layman’s terms, Drew Brees is having a historic season.

    That’s a fact, a reality and bad news for Niners fans. 

    The inflated stats are further proof:

    5,476 yards, 71 percent completion rate, 46 touchdowns, and a 110.6 rating. 

    He’s the guy that brings multiple machine guns to a knife fight.   

    Jimmy Graham has emerged as a huge threat at the tight end position to go along with receivers Marquez Colston and Robert Meachem. Focus on them and the Saints will burn you with a variety of screen passes to their backs.   

    Nobody can stop the air attack, but they can try to slow it down.

    The recipe is applying pressure and forcing mistakes.

    Luckily, the 49ers are one of the few teams able to accomplish that.

    They have the personnel, namely Aldon and Justin Smith, to apply the pressure on Brees and hopefully force a few mistakes. The two have a combined 21.5 sacks and five forced fumbles on the season. 

    Though at times susceptible to big plays, their secondary has more than made up for it with a league-high 23 interceptions and 100 passes defended. 

    It’s been a bend but not break formula. 

    Even then, it’s not enough.  

    Advantage: Saints

Saints Rush Offense vs. 49ers Rush Defense

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    Often overlooked is the success of the Saints’ ground game. Their two-headed monster, featuring Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, has helped the team average 132.9 yards rushing per game. That amount ranks sixth in the NFL, surprising considering the amount of times they throw the ball. It’s this balance that gives defensive coordinators headaches.The running game sets up play action and vice versa. 

    Vic Fangio must be having nightmares all week long. 

    Then again, maybe he's not. The 49ers defense is built to stop the run. 

    On the season, they surrendered a league-low 77 yards per game and only three total rushing touchdowns. Defensive tackles Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga are ideal lane stuffers that free up the linebackers to crash in and make tackles. The corners get involved, too, as they have displayed the ability to shed blockers and contribute to stuffing the run.  

    And that’s what they’ll do this Saturday.

    New Orleans will come out running, but will fail thus placing their hopes on the arm of their quarterback, again.  

    Advantage: 49ers

49ers Pass Offense vs. Saints Pass Defense

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    Don't let the stats fool you, the 49ers can move the ball through the air. 

    Just ask the New York Giants

    In their game at San Francisco, they stacked the box and got torched by Alex Smith. 

    On the year, Smith has thrown for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions and compiled a 90.7 rating. Nowhere near the astronomical numbers of Brees, but equally efficient. Both have led their teams to similar 13-3 records and a playoff berth. 

    The improvements expand far outside the stat sheet. He has improved his mechanics, pocket presence and is playing with loads of confidence.

    Most importantly, he finally has a supporting cast ready to contribute. The 49ers' passing attack features a variety of looks and everyone gets involved, even linemen.

    Tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree are Smith's favorite targets, but others are emerging as legit threats. Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn are both returning from injuries and should be healthy enough to make plays. They will miss versatile Delanie Walker, but expect to see a lot of short screens to counteract a blitz-happy Saints defense.  

    It's tough to defend, especially with a passing defense that surrenders 259.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Those numbers are slightly skewed as offenses are forced to throw the ball more against the Saints in order to keep up with Brees.

    Still, the 49ers passing attack should be able to exploit the Saints' secondary.  

49ers Rush Offense vs. Saints Rush Defense

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    Star running back Frank Gore is well rested and rookie Kendall Hunter has gained plenty of experience in the process. 

    That spells danger for the Saints who give up 4.9 yards a carry.

    It’s safe to assume the 49ers plan on establishing the run early and relying on it often to keep the Saints offense off the field.  

    Gore is Houdini-like in disappearing behind his massive blockers to find open lanes, and Hunter has the speed to get to the edge and elude tacklers.

    On top of that, San Francisco likes to get their speedy receivers involved in the run game. Ted Ginn averages 8.5 yards and Kyle Williams gets 16 yards a carry. It keeps the defense on their toes, picks up chunks of yardage and sets up the play-action.

    The Saints surrender a mere 108.6 rushing yards per game, good for 12th in the NFL, but that number is deceiving. Teams quickly fall behind and are forced to abandon the run and rely on throwing the ball.

    The 49ers should be able to take advantage of an average defense and control the time of possession.

    Advantage: 49ers

Special Teams

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    This one is not even close. 

    Never before have I seen a team more focused on the importance of special teams than this year’s 49ers.

    The results are palpable.

    Kicker David Akers has had arguably the greatest season by a kicker, ever. The 49ers conservative offense has relied on him throughout the season, and he has failed to disappoint. Akers converted 44-of-52 field goals, a team and league record. No matter the distance, he was a sure thing to kick it through the uprights.

    Punter Andy Lee was the best at his position, hands down. He averaged 51 yards a punt with an amazing net of 44. His kicks constantly pinned the opposing offense deep in their own territory.

    Both are All-Pro and legit team MVP candidates.

    Then there’s the all-important battle of field position, another area dominated by the 49ers' special teams unit. They shine in both returns and coverage. The 49ers' average starting field position was at their own 34-yard line, ranking first in the NFL. The team also ranked first with an opponents' average starting field position at the 24-yard line.

    The Saints also have a solid special teams unit, but not on the same level. Their kicker, John Kasay, is fairly reliable yet never relied upon. Darren Sproles is always dangerous with the ball in his hands, but the 49ers still dominate this category.

    Advantage: 49ers