NFL Playoffs: 49ers' Most Important Defensive Strategy vs. Saints

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NFL Playoffs: 49ers' Most Important Defensive Strategy vs. Saints
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As a reader of my last 49ers-Saints post commented, the New Orleans offense offers a sumptuous buffet called “Pick Your Poison.”

Start with a heady serving of quarterback Drew Brees. Then around your plate, spoon in generous helpings of wide receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.

Don’t forget to add tight end Jimmy Graham. If you have room left over, help yourself to a bit of Darren Sproles, both as a runner and as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

And be sure to toss in a dash of running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas for some extra spice.

Any one of them can kill you. Witness the Detroit Lions, who survived the first half last Saturday, only to be DOA by game’s end.

Even if the 49ers employ a rigorous ball-control offense on Saturday, as I expect, they can’t keep the Saints offense off the field forever (barring a dozen successful onside kicks).

What they can do is two things, one playing off the other.

First, stuff the run and make Drew Brees rely on the pass. The Saints are deadly when they can mix running and passing, as they did against the Lions. But if the 49ers can make them one-dimensional, they become vulnerable to the second part of the strategy.

Which is to knock Brees down every chance they get.

Corner blitzes, safety blitzes, up-the-middle blitzes, media blitzes, sales blitzes, cheese blintzes—whatever it takes. Send everybody but the trainer.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Because the best way to keep Drew Brees from passing the 49ers silly is to keep him from passing at all.

The main candidate is a young man named Aldon Smith. The rookie outside linebacker recorded 14 sacks during the regular season as a specialist on passing downs. People are already comparing him to the great 49ers pass-rusher Fred Dean.

If the 49ers are to succeed on Saturday, they need to set Smith loose to show what he can do against the league’s second-highest-rated passer (behind Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers).

I’m betting Smith will introduce Brees to the Candlestick turf more than once.

He’ll have to. Because if Brees is free to sit back and connect on 33 passes, as he did against the Lions, then the 49ers playoff party will be over before it’s barely begun.

What the 70,000-plus faithful need to see on Saturday is Drew Brees running from a wave of red-and-gold uniforms all afternoon, while All-Pro defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson join the rest of the 49ers secondary in trying to cover the Saints’ talented receiving corps.

The latter is a task that probably no defensive backfield in the league can do alone. But it’s one that can be accomplished if the front seven can disrupt timing, chase Brees out of the pocket and put him on the seat of his pants.

Don’t forget, just three-and-a-half weeks ago, people were asking how the 49ers would contain the Pittsburgh Steelers, even with a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger. The Niners did it by playing field-position football, winning 20-3 even though they gave up 102 more yards than they gained.

No doubt, pinning the Saints back through solid special-teams play will be a key to Saturday’s game. Holding onto the ball for long stretches will be, as well.

But when the New Orleans offense takes the field, the best thing the 49ers can do is keep the ball away from a truly special group of receivers.

To accomplish that, there’s one main approach.

Cover Drew Brees with grass stains all day long.

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