This is a game where it appears that the 49ers are overmatched. But the longer I look at it, the more I come to believe that this is a game in which the competitiveness of Jim Harbaugh will come to full bloom.
The Saints, averaging 569 yards of offense in their last three games, have been scary good of late. Quarterback Drew Brees set the all-time mark for passing yards in a season and the weapons — Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas — are plentiful. This is a team that can score and score often. “Fast-break football,” it’s called.
And that right there suggests that Harbaugh will use every tactic in his arsenal to take away that facet of the Saints. Just like a basketball coach who knows the opposing team’s best player likes to go to his right, Harbaugh wants to make the Saints go left.
When facing an opponent that is playing with great confidence and efficiency, the first thing to do is take away that feeling of comfort.
With Harbaugh, there’s nothing to lose. The season has been an unparalleled success but the 49ers are playing the hottest team in the league. New Orleans is favored. That’s why the 49ers and their tough defense will do everything they can to increase the discomfort of the Saints, and in that light here are the five reasons why the 49ers will prevail over them on Saturday.
One thing that Niners have been very good with is their tackling. There were very few missed tackles that resulted in big gains. On defense they gave up 48 plays of 20 yards or greater, ranking 12th in the league. Against the Saints, they are going to have to be very good at bringing down receivers immediately.
With Brees taking such deep drops and with his quick release, the idea of sacks seems less likely. Strong coverage schemes and good tackling can negate a lot of the Saints’ offensive effectiveness. By taking away the deep throws and jumping quickly on receivers on the short routes, New Orleans will be slowed down significantly.
More to the point, hard hitting can rattle receivers and runners. Couple that with the outdoor conditions and the pressure, and the frustration level increases over time.
One thing the Niners can’t afford to do is make early mistakes that result in a sizeable New Orleans' lead. That throws everything out. But there is no doubt that no matter how well the offense plays, the defense will have to carry this game and it comes down to imparting their will on the other team.
That’s a long way of saying that have to take away the Saints’ comfort level by inflicting lots of pain.
Already, this is being discounted as a factor because the weather is slated to be in mid-60s and dry. But this is something very different. The Saints have only played twice under the sky since Oct. 16. That’s 12 weeks! And the last time they played under a blue sky they only scored 22 points against a middling Tennessee team. That was a month ago.
And now they’re playing in Candlestick, the third-oldest stadium in the league. The traction is OK, not great. The crowd noise will definitely be against the Saints, negating that split-second reaction that gives them such a big advantage at home. And there’s that weird sun angle late in the afternoon where receivers looking back will have to look into penetrating glare. Add in an occasional gust of wind and it becomes a very different environment.
In New Orleans’ last four consecutive dome games (three at home), the Saints have racked up 42, 45, 45 and 45 points. The 49ers, in contrast, have allowed 10 total points in their last three home games.
This is a different matter all together.
Nothing gets a hot shooter on the basketball floor frustrated like not having the ball. It’s one thing to play tough defense against Brees and Co., but it’s so much easier to keep him from scoring by keeping him on the sideline.
It’s interesting to note that in their last seven games, which include two against the Lions, the Saints faced teams that ranked 19th (Giants), 21st (Lions), 31st (Titans), sixth (Falcons) and 15th (Panthers) in time of possession.
As we saw in the 81 snaps the Saints ran last week against the Lions, giving the Saints more chances on offense just leads to disaster. Here’s where Harbaugh’s offensive schemes could really help. A solid running game and consistent third-down conversions (which have been lacking) will lead to fewer chances for the Saints on offense.
The Niners ranked fourth in the regular season with a time-of-possession mark of 32 minutes a game. The Saints were third at 32 and a couple seconds. What 49ers fans should remember in light of this stat is the fact that the Saints gave up an average of five yards a rush.
The need for maintaining possession coupled with a soft rush defense usually means this is a game that turns on the legs of Frank Gore. Let’s call him Ice Man.
Andy Lee led the league with a net punt average of 44 yards. It’s a testament to his skill and that of special teams coach Brad Seeley that the Niners are able to keep opponents on long fields.
In contrast, the 49ers started 37 drives in their opponent’s territory, first in the league. They scored 134 points on those drives, which ranked first in the NFL. On the other side of the ball, the 49ers allowed just 11 drives to start in their own territory, which ranked tied for first.
The Niners’ average starting field position was at their own 33.5-yard line. At home, they had an average starting field position at their own 35.5-yard line. Both marks led the league.
The 49ers also ranked first in the NFL with an opponent's average starting field position at the 24.3-yard line. At home, the 49ers' opponents had an average starting field position at their own 20.8-yard line, again a league best.
But all that doesn’t mean much if the Niners can’t make the Saints punt. To their credit, the 49ers allowed just 23 first downs on third down and less than four yards (23 of 54 - 42.6 pct.), which ranked first.
And, finally, thanks to Ted Ginn Jr. (19), the Niners registered 10 punt returns of 20 or more yards for a top ranking.
I feel you’re going to see everything in Harbaugh’s bag. Unbalanced line, late-count shifts to draw the other team offsides, trick plays on offense (like Isaac Sopoaga 90) and a few exotic blitzes on defense (when called for).
More to the point, it suggests that the Saints know that the Niners will want to run and run, but that should set up the opportunity to use play-action passes on first down for some big plays. The Niners did that against the Giants to great success.
Of course, if I’m saying it no doubt Sean Payton and his coaching staff have to be thinking it as well. This might be just a simple smash-mouth game where the Niners just have to beat up the Saints. And that’s one thing that came out of the Lions vs. Saints matchup last week: You could feel the intensity pour out of the television. The game was played at a frenetic pace.
The Niners have already achieved so much and yet Harbaugh will have them convinced that no one is giving them a chance. Moreover is the fact that this will be a chance to show the nation what they feel is the best defense in the league.
The Niners will not be afraid. But if they can hold the Saints to 24 points, they have a chance.
San Francisco, thanks to David Akers, get 26.