Saints vs. 49ers: 5 Under-the-Radar Advantages for San Francisco

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2012

Saints vs. 49ers: 5 Under-the-Radar Advantages for San Francisco

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    The San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints finished the regular season with identical 13-3 records. The 49ers received the first-round bye, while the Saints displayed their high-powered offense in defeating the Lions, 45-28.

    Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns in an amazing display of aerial excellence. If Brees gets in that type of rhythm against the 49ers, it will be all over for San Francisco.

    This game is quite unique in that it pits the top offense against the top defense in the NFL. If the 49ers are able to contain Brees and the vaunted New Orleans passing attack, this will be a great game.

    I have isolated five advantages that have not been major topics—under the radar, if you will—that favor the 49ers in this playoff contest.

    Let's take a look at these five keys.

5) the 49ers' Coaching Staff Had 2 Weeks to Prepare

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    Jim Harbaugh has done a tremendous job with the San Francisco 49ers. I believe the most amazing thing he was able to do was to turn this team into a winner with no OTA's, no spring camp and very little training camp practice time prior to the season.

    Harbaugh and his staff have proven their worth and will have another chance to do so against the Saints. I expect the 49ers to be very well prepared on both offense and defense.

    The 49ers will try to run the ball and control the clock, keeping the ball away from Drew Brees as much as possible. However, look for a few new wrinkles and maybe even another pass or two to various linemen, like they did with Joe Staley and Isaac Sopoaga earlier in the season.

    It will be on defense where we may see the biggest adjustments. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been able to rush four men and get pressure on the quarterback, but against the Saints he may not be able to do that.

    Look for some new blitz packages, as the 49ers will try to disrupt the rhythm of Drew Brees and the Saints offense. The extra week of preparation is, therefore, a big advantage for the 49ers.

4) Playing At Candlestick Park

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    The San Francisco 49ers earned the home-field advantage for this game and it is a critical benefit. If this game was played on the carpet in New Orleans, the 49ers would have little chance of stopping the Saints offense.

    The field at Candlestick Park will be lush and green, almost like the rough at a U.S. Open golf tournament. At this location on the shores of San Francisco Bay, we can potentially have a lot of wind, which can also be a factor.

    The Saints are much better in the controlled confines of their home environment, where the game is played on a fast artificial turf. There is no wind or other outside elements influencing their play.

    The 49ers will also have a loud and raucous crowd in their favor, which could also make it difficult for Brees to call audibles and for offensive linemen to hear the snap count.

    49er fans have not tasted the playoffs since the 2002 season, so expect them to be extra fired up, which should help the team.

3) Andy Lee and David Akers

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    The San Francisco 49ers have a big edge in special teams play. Kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee both made the Pro Bowl and are All-Pro selections.

    Akers set an all-time NFL record for most field goals made this season and also kicks off deep into the end zone on most occasions. Akers made 44-of-52 field-goal attempts. Seven of his eight misses were beyond 40 yards, but he also made 7-of-9 outside of 50 yards. 

    Saints kicker John Kasay is a veteran who is very accurate inside 40 yards. He made 21 out of 21 attempts inside the 40-yard mark, but outside of that range, he was only 7-of-13. Kasay also does not get the same depth on his kickoffs that Akers does, so that should give the 49ers a chance for some returns.

    Punter Andy Lee led the league with an average of 50.9 yards per punt and is also tops in net punting average. Lee also does a great job pinning the opposition inside the 20-yard line, giving the 49ers a strong advantage when it comes to field position.

    Saints punter Thomas Morstead is very solid, with a 48.3 yards per punt average.

    The 49ers' coverage units have been outstanding all year and return man Ted Ginn is back after missing a few weeks due to injury.

2) The 49er Defense Can Contain Darren Sproles

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    The New Orleans Saints do not have a running back who has gained over 605 yards during the regular season. Their "running back by committee" includes Mark Ingram, with 474 yards on 122 carries, Pierre Thomas, with 562 yards in 110 attempts and Darren Sproles, who has 603 yards in only 87 carries.

    Sproles is the major threat for the Saints, as his 6.9 yards per carry average indicates. He also is second on the team in receptions with 86. Sproles also returns kickoffs and punts. He has had a tremendous year, with nearly 2,700 yards in total offense on the season.

    The 49ers defense, ranked No. 1 against the rush, should be able to stop the Saints' ground game. The key will be to make sure that Sproles does not escape for a big play.

    It is in the area of pass coverage that the 49ers must contain Sproles. Linebackers Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will be called upon to keep Sproles under control. The 49er linebackers are fast and cover a lot of ground, so they have the ability to keep Sproles bottled up.

1) The Saints Showed Their Cards Early With Their Blitzes In The Preseason

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    The 49ers played the Saints in the first exhibition game of the season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams blitzed the 49ers constantly and exposed a major weakness in the Niners' pass-blocking.

    Never in Saints head coach Sean Payton's mind would he ever have expected to face the 49ers in the second round of the playoffs. The unmerciful blitzing by the Saints in that first preseason game was actually a huge benefit for the 49ers.

    It exposed several flaws in blitz pickup that the 49ers have worked on and improved throughout the course of the season. The 49ers also have a much better idea of what to expect this Saturday from Williams' defense.

The 49ers Can Win This Game

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    The San Francisco 49ers definitely can win this game against the Saints. I have isolated five key advantages that the 49ers own for this game.

    However, none of that will matter unless the 49ers can slow down Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing attack. Nickel and dime defensive backs Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock and Reggie Smith must play well and the 49ers must not give up the big play.

    The 49ers also need Alex Smith to play well and Frank Gore to dominate the game on the ground. The 49ers must control the ball, score touchdowns when they have the chance and slow down the high-powered Saints offense.

    If successful, they will win this game.

    Turnovers will also be a key for the 49ers. They lead the league with a plus-28 turnover margin and will need to win in this area against the Saints.

    The bottom line: This shapes up to be a great game of two contrasting styles. It sure beats what we were doing last year at this time.