NFL Playoff Picture: How the San Francisco 49ers Control the New Orleans Saints
Despite playing in Candlestick, the 49ers are considered underdogs. Nevertheless, those who expect Drew Brees and the Saints' offense to be able to cruise through San Francisco like they did Detroit are mistaken.
If San Francisco can dictate the flow of the game, then the 49ers will earn a trip to the NFC Championship game.
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San Francisco can dictate the flow of the game by playing 49er football, which emphasizes the fundamentals: time of possession, field position and winning the turnover battle.
The 49ers offense must be able to regularly sustain drives in order to keep Drew Brees off the field.
For this to happen, San Francisco's offensive line must dominate the line of scrimmage. This will open holes for 49ers backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in the run game and allow Alex Smith time to find open receivers.
Possessing the ball for a majority of the game will disrupt the rhythm of the Saints' offense and allow the San Francisco defense to rest.
If the offense is not able to move the ball, 49ers punter Andy Lee will be relied on to pin the Saints deep in their own end. Lee led the league in both yards per punt (50.9) and net average (44).
The deciding factor of this game will be turnovers. This favors San Francisco, who led the league with a +28 turnover differential.
On the other hand, New Orleans finished the season with three more turnovers than takeaways.
By sticking to the fundamentals, the 49ers will be able to control the game and force the Saints to play to the 49ers' strengths.
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The 49ers' defense versus the Saints' offense is the match-up that will decide this game.
San Francisco gave up 14.3 points per game in the regular season, compared to New Orleans' offense, which scored 34.2 points per game. For the 49ers to win, they cannot allow New Orleans to score more than 20 points.
The Smith tandem must get consistent pressure on Brees to force him to check the ball down to receivers running short routes.
With all the attention on the Smith Bros., expect 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks to have a good game rushing from the opposite side.
The 49ers' standout linebacker Patrick Willis will likely be called on to cover Graham. Willis has been successful covering big-bodied tight ends this season, such as Jermaine Gresham from the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions' Brandon Pettigrew (both listed at 6'5").
San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who was assigned to spy Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, will likely be covering Sproles. Bowman does not have the ability to lock down Sproles, but he is a sure tackler and will limit the yards Sproles gains after the catch.
If San Francisco can force Brees to dink and dunk all game, that will throw him off-rhythm and eventually lead to some big turnovers.
Alex Smith vs. Drew Brees
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49ers fans are waking up early every morning thinking a dismal thought: Alex Smith vs. Drew Brees.
The Lions made a mistake thinking that their quarterback Matthew Stafford would be able to exceed Brees' production. San Francisco will not commit this error.
As has been the case all season, Smith will not be asked to carry the offense. The success of the team, however, will depend on how he executes when his number is called.
Smith's biggest weakness is getting rid of the ball when facing the blitz. He has the tendency to get nervous and make poor decisions when defenses are applying consistent pressure.
The 49ers' offense must be accurate in diagnosing blitzes and have a series of blitz-beating routes for the receivers to run in order to counter the pressure the Saints will bring.
The 49ers are known for complimenting the run with short passes. This opens up the deep pass, another area where Smith has struggled. Typically, Smith takes two or three shots downfield per game, and he usually completes them to a fan sitting in the fifth row. Smith's ability (or inability) to complete the deep pass will be crucial to the outcome of the game.
The Saints give up an average of 21.2 points per game. The 49ers must beat that average by at least a field goal if they want a shot at playing in the NFC Championship Game.
Jonathan Goodwin vs. Aubrayo Franklin
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For the 49ers to control the tempo of this game, they must be dominant in the trenches.
An interesting story line in this game is how 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin and Saints defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin will help their current clubs defeat their previous teams.
Goodwin (who played center for the Saints last season) will be lining up across from Franklin (who played nose tackle for the 49ers last season). Both players will be giving tips to their new teams on the weaknesses of their old teammates.
The advantage here goes to Goodwin and the 49ers.
Franklin will be able to spill the details about his old teammates' habits, but San Francisco's new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has remodeled the defense since last season.
Goodwin, who had been teammates with Brees since 2006, will be able to share the tendencies of the New Orleans offensive line, as well as the playbook.
Goodwin will be telling Justin Smith, 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald and the rest of the 49ers front seven the habits of the New Orleans offensive line that cannot be seen by looking at film.
In a game where the battle of the trenches will be key, Goodwin and the 49ers clearly have the advantage.
Overlooked Key to Game
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49ers wide receiver and return man Ted Ginn, Jr. is due for a big game. He has not scored on a kick or punt return since week one of the regular season.
In a game where the 49ers must score at least 24 points, a trip to the end zone on a punt or kick return could end up being the deciding factor.
Whether he scores or not, Ginn will play an unsung role in the outcome of this game. Along with Andy Lee, Ginn's ability to return kicks will influence the starting field position for his offense.
Alex Smith is simply not good enough to consistently drive the ball 80 yards on each drive. Being given a short field to work with will take the pressure off of him.
There will be a point in this game when the 49ers will need a spark—whether it's a turnover, a long pass or a big return. If Ginn is able to deliver, that should carry over to the rest of the team and create enough momentum to topple the Saints.