As the New Orleans Saints are preparing this week to head to the West Coast to face the NFC's No. 2 seed—the San Francisco 49ers—I, too, am preparing with lots of film study to see just how the Saints must attack this 49ers squad.
I hope to have a fuller game plan article published Friday, but for now let’s look at some of the keys to the game for New Orleans. There are five that really stick out. Here's a hint: Lance Moore is among them.
Teams that have had success throwing the football against this 49ers squad have done so with short and intermediate routes with slot receivers and tight ends, primarily.
To that end, the health and production of Lance Moore is huge in this game. If he is able to play—and play at a high level—the Saints should work the ball down the field almost at will against this defense.
Those short and intermediate throws will eventually open the deeper passing game against one-on-one coverage. But it first has to start with success with the short stuff.
This would also work well because the Niners are probably going to come out jacked up and have some success early in the game getting to Drew Brees. Thus, the short pass would act as a pressure-beater.
Finally, Lance Moore is the Saints' best quick hitch/screen receiver. And that is a route concept that works well against this off-coverage 49ers' secondary.
The San Francisco 49ers are among the NFL's finest teams in turning over opposing offenses. They often turn those turnovers into touchdowns—a la the 2009 Saints. And when they don’t, their offense is pretty good at cashing those turnovers into points.
The Saints, of course. have struggled to a degree the last few weeks with turnovers. And if you look at the three games the Saints lost this season, they lost them primarily due to turnovers.
The turnover battle is integral to this game because it is San Francisco’s main lifeline. If you give them that lifeline, they have a tremendous opportunity to stay in this game and win it. If you take that lifeline away, you have a realistic chance to destroy their will and blow them out.
Though the 49ers possess the finest rushing defense in the league, they can be had with shotgun runs and some off-tackle runs.
The Niners rarely give up big plays via the run, but the Saints don't need huge plays in the running game—just good 10-yard chunks and balance.
But the running game will obviously set up the pass, keep the Niners from only rushing four, and create more man-to-man coverages.
But perhaps most importantly, it will allow the Saints to win the time-of-possession battle, which figures to be an important factor in this football game.
If Alex Smith has time to throw, he's just good enough to find the open man and make plays in the passing game.
But once you get pressure on him, he shuts down and often takes the sack. Or he throws inaccurately into coverage or misses the wide-open receiver.
Smith won't throw interceptions, and the Niners don't really turn the ball over. But they also don't make many explosive plays. Stopping this Niners squad is dependent upon eliminating the run game and forcing Alex Smith to beat you.
Smith probably won't beat you—unless you give him the chance to.
The Niners want to play with the lead. Of course, so do the Saints. Whichever team can take the lead figures to have a huge advantage in this football game.
Starting fast is the equivalent of scoring touchdowns in this game. The Niners will kick field goals. And if you kick field goals with them, they can stay in the game and play their way. But if you can score touchdowns, you can take them out of their game and force them to do things they don't want to do.
The Niners are unlikely to come back, even against this Saints squad and their soft defense. But the Saints need to play with the lead in this game, because the Niners' defense gets tougher with a lead.