The Saints' offense has been unstoppable in recent weeks, while the Niners' defense has been spectacular most of the season.
Offensively the 49ers have been poor in the opponent's red zone. But the Saints' red-zone defense hasn't been anything to write home to mom about. Either way it's two units that figure to create a very intriguing matchup.
As a Saints evaluator and tactician, here is how I would approach this football game based on six games of film on the San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit, vs. New York Giants, at Arizona, vs. Pittsburgh, at Seattle and at St. Louis).
When San Francisco Has the Ball
Everyone knows the Niners like to run the football from a lot of power alignments. They use a ton of pulling guards on traps and counters. This style is good against hard-flowing defenses such as the Saints.
To combat this the Saints should play more three down linemen and four linebackers, focusing primarily on gap control. This alignment will also give the Saints a better chance to slow down Vernon Davis—the Niners’ most dangerous offensive threat.
But the Niners’ offense is a lot more diverse than many would have you believe. It is not uncommon for them to spread out the defense and run from the gun, or throw some out patterns. And after they’ve lulled a defense to sleep with this stuff, they’ll take their shot down the field—normally with Davis or Michael Crabtree.
Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are both good catching the ball out of the backfield on checkdowns, so Jonathan Vilma and company must be aware of these guys when they are not handed the football.
Finally, the Saints must know that Alex Smith is agile and quick enough to keep some plays alive and pick up key conversions with his feet.
Final word—because the 49ers’ offense is so multiple and creates so many mismatches simply via personnel and scheme, it seems wise to play primarily a base defense. The Niners are not talented enough to score consistently against the Saints when New Orleans plays solid fundamental defense.
Gregg Williams would be wise to hold back often, even playing eight in coverage as he actually does quite a bit. This should prevent the Niners from making any explosive passing plays and should handle the Niners’ plethora of intermediate throws to the outside.
That said, an occasional pressure should keep the Niners on their guard and even create a sack or an interception opportunity against a quarterback who seems to struggle against pressure.
When New Orleans Has the Ball
The Niners most often play an even front—three down linemen and a linebacker lined up on the line of scrimmage (two linebackers on the line would be an odd front since it would add up to five). On occasion they’ll add that fifth guy, and even rarer, they’ll add a sixth guy coming up the middle.
But the Niners’ defense is not built on pressure. Instead it is built on getting pressure with four and maintaining seven guys for coverage. They play a lot of soft zone, leaving the shorter throws wide open.
And they hardly ever get out of their base personnel groupings. Occasionally, they’ll play four corners but are generally two corners and a nickelback in passing situations.
Here’s what that means for the Saints: First and foremost, the Saints must run the football effectively against this four-man front. Marshawn Lynch and Steven Jackson showed the last two weeks it is possible.
Success in the run game is going to come with speed. In other words, Darren Sproles should get a lot of carries in this contest. His ability to run around this slower defense ought to negate some of San Francisco’s physicality.
Then Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas can be effective with some more straight-ahead runs as the game wears on.
Second, in the passing game, the Saints should be able to take advantage of this secondary so long as the offensive line can protect Drew Brees. Establishing the running game will aide them significantly in that it will allow Brees to operate with play-action on a high number of snaps.
Play-action is almost always a great protection scheme and should give the Saints' speedy receivers the opportunity to beat the Niners’ average corners one-on-one. Look for Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem to break free over the middle of the field a few times in this game.
If they are able to do that, the Saints will make some big plays. Additionally, Marques Colston has an opportunity to make some big plays over the middle against this defense. Look for Pete Carmichael Jr. to line him up in the slot more than he has in recent weeks.
Finally, if the Saints find they can protect against that four-man front, look for them to spread the field and go empty with Brees. That look will automatically produce at least one mismatch in the Niners’ secondary.
Brees can be patient and hit a receiver for a short pass, or take his time and find a receiver deep when he is in that empty set.
I believe the Saints are going to try to run as many plays in this game as possible, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them break out a no-huddle early in the game, hoping to tire this defense out from the beginning.
I look forward to the chess match between Brees and Niners linebacker Patrick Willis. It should be as fun a matchup as we’ve seen all season.