Several numbers from New Orleans’ 45-28 victory over Detroit last week scream for attention, and they aren’t the 626 yards in offense. If the 49ers are to be successful in this week’s NFC divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park, the following issues must be addressed:
Eighty-one – the number of snaps the Saints had against Detroit, a mind-boggling number that supports the theory that the longer an offense is on the field, the better it gets and the longer a defense is on the field, the worse it gets. That Detroit had 53 snaps accounts for its 15-minute disparity in time of possession.
10-of-15 – The rate the Saints converted on third (7-of-11) and fourth down (3-of-4). The last one really stands out because it reflects the Saints’ aggressiveness and confidence. Sean Payton (pictured) believes his team can make anyone pay at any time.
4-of-4 – In four trips inside the 20, Detroit scored four TDs and that wasn’t enough. Why? Because New Orleans was 4-of-6, and really 4-of-5 because the game ended with the Saints taking a knee deep in Detroit territory.
Three – The number of Drew Brees passes that Detroit defenders dropped.
Aside from the whopping offensive production and the fact that Brees finished the game with a quarterback rating of 134.4 supports the claim that New Orleans ranks as one of the game’s best offenses of all time – up there with the ’84 Dolphins, the ’83 Chargers, the ’07 Patriots and the ’10 Colts.
The 49ers defense has ranked as one of the league’s best but it hasn’t faced as diverse and potent an offense like this all year. That’s what makes the matchup so compelling. To succeed, here are six factors the 49ers must control to beat the Saints.
Brees is operating at a phenomenal level of efficiency and much has to be attached to Payton’s scheme. Brees takes a snap in the shotgun and then drops back deeper into the pocket.
Now the defenders have to cover that space while Brees assesses the defense and finds his target.
More importantly, that extra time of his deep drop gives his receivers more time to get downfield. Brees has the arm and the accuracy to get the ball to his receivers, and that’s why New Orleans racks up so many plays of 15, 20 and 25 yards.
If, like Detroit, the defense blitzes, Brees is so keen to see it coming that he audibles to a correct play. If, like Detroit, the defense drops back in deep zone coverage, that leaves room for Darren Sproles to run free.
It’s a classic Payton maneuver of putting a defense on the horn of a dilemma: Either choice begets an advantage for the Saints.
From my perspective, 49er defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will play it pretty straight, relying on his front three or four (Aldon Smith getting plenty of playing time) to provide pressure on the pocket. That leaves plenty of 49ers in coverage—seven or eight, depending on the play.
Also, by not blitzing, it leaves the Niners with their best players—Willis, Bowman, Brooks, Whitner—in the middle of the field aimed at tackling.
The Niners won’t play for the sack as much as for the cover-and-tackle, and the pass knockdown and/or interception. You may not be able to stop the Saints, but at least the Niners can slow down the Saints and take away the big plays.
Here’s where you might see Payton dial it back a little. He won’t have the benefit of playing in the Superdome where it gets quiet for the Saints offense and the turf gives them that firm, fast footing.
But when the Saints get aggressive on fourth down, the Niners have to step up. They have allowed 7-of-17 conversions on fourth down this year, which puts them tied for 10th among NFL defenses.
In contrast, New Orleans allowed just 6-of-22 this year, but many of those came when the game was out of reach for Saints opponents.
In the regular season, the Saints tried just 10 fourth-down plays, converting three. Payton’s plan against Detroit showed how much he wanted to attack the Lion defense.
The Niners must deflect him of this notion on Saturday.
Darren Sproles (43), Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory did much to account for the Saints’ 167 rushing yards against Detroit, which was one of the better defensive teams in the NFL during the regular season.
But that stat just shows how well the Saints play indoors. Under the sky they are 5-3. More importantly, that edge that comes from getting off the ball before your opponents will disappear on Saturday. With Candlestick Park in full roar, the Saints will have to go on silent counts, and that small difference coupled with the NFL’s best rush defense will negate Sproles, Thomas and Ivory.
And that makes the Saints a one-dimensional team, one that's much easier to defend.
The Lions ran the ball only 10 times last week against the Saints who gave up five yards a crack during the regular season. So much for the Lions’ running game or the faith coach Jim Schwartz had in it.
The best chance the Niners have in this game is to keep Brees on the sidelines. To do it they must be able to control the ball with the running game, and that means converting more than 29 percent of their chances on third down. Frank Gore (21) will be needed to get first-down yardage on 3rd-and-3 or less.
But it has to be said that a running game often doesn’t take its full effect until late in the game, when defenses wear down. In many games this year the Saints were so far ahead that they didn’t really care of the opponent ran the ball.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams knows that the Niners will want to run, and it seems that Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh should counter with a lot of play-action passes early in the game to try to get big plays and easy scores on the Saints.
That way, having a lead or being tied late in the game enables the 49ers to blow out the Saints defensive front and maintain possession.
The end zone cameras last week showed Brees’ view during the play. So many times the Lions brought one or two blitzers, and that left deep voids in the secondary for Brees to exploit. His arm strength and accuracy produced big plays, especially on the 15-yard digs over the middle. But to be truthful, Detroit’s coverage wasn’t all that great.
With cornerbacks Carlos Rogers (22), Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, the Niners will have to provide decent one-on-one play against the Saints receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. Culliver or Rogers, when playing the slot receiver, will have plenty of challenges ahead, which is where Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson must help.
Early on, the goal of the Niners is to make the Saints receivers uncomfortable. That’s a euphemism for the 49er safeties Whitner and Goldson crashing their bodies into the Saints receivers with the intent of leave lasting bruises on both body and psyche.
Meanwhile, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will have to disrupt 6’6” tight end Jimmy Graham. But again, if a catch is made the catchee must catch some pain as well.
The bookmakers in Vegas and the fantasy geeks on their laptops, not to mention the diehard and casual fan alike have to wonder how much the Niners have to score to beat the Saints. It’s a natural question.
Some say 31, others say 28. The Saints lost three games in which they gave up 42, 31 and 26 points. All those losses came on the road.
Harbaugh and staff just sniff and say all they have to do is score one more than the Saints. One thing seems clear: The Niners have to do more in the red zone than rely on David Akers' field goals.
But even that seems simplistic. Here’s a deeper take. The Niners have been in the red zone 54 times and scored 22 TDs and 28 field goals. But 22-of-54 in terms of TDs seems rather light compared to what is needed against the Saints.
In contrast the Niners defense has allowed only 14 TDs in the red zone, but more importantly they have had to play against only 34 possessions inside the 20. That’s just over two a game. That’s huge.
How do they do it? Part of it is great defense and part of it is the fact that Andy Lee and Akers have done so much as part of the 49er special teams to make teams play on long fields. No better example of that came against Pittsburgh in December when the Niners gave up nearly 400 yards but allowed just three points.
The Niners excel in field position. The average starting point for their opponents in 2011 was at the 22-yard line, best in the NFL. The average starting point for the Niners was the 33, again best in the NFL. And no team had more possessions start on their side of the 50 than the Niners. That's one reason why their stats don't look all that great; they had short fields and thus less yards to gain.
It’s the sort of game that can frustrate and disrupt a high-efficiency engine that is the Saints. Playing field position, eliminating turnovers while scoring a few off their opponents, scoring TDs and controlling the clock has been the Niner way in 2011.
It will have to be the same on Saturday.