Saints-49ers: 5 Things We Learned in San Francisco's 36-32 Victory
Well, we can now call Alex by his new name, "Joe."
The sizzle of the 49ers’ victory hangs in the air like so much cordite after an extraordinary fireworks display. The Niners covered 80 and 86 yards in successive drives as the last four minutes of the game turned into a rollercoaster of emotion, strength, focus and execution to rescue victory from a bone-jarring defeat. Needless to say, this ranks as one of the most amazing victories in franchise history.
Looking back, it was an overall accomplishment, one that special teams and defense and, finally, offense in the end all contributed. It marks the Harbaugh Era as something special and rejuvenating.
In his post-game comments, Saints coach Sean Payton said the Niners made one more play than the Saints. Actually, the Niners made lots and lots of plays. Most of them on defense, and we’ll run down some of them. But it’s a game that the stats box does not give any idea as to how the Niners won.
Drew Brees had 458 yards passing and three Saints receivers had more than 100 receiving yards. But sift through the stats and you’ll notice that the Niners had an 106-yard rushing advantage (143-37). More to the point the Saints threw the ball 63 times and ran only 14 times. They were a one-dimensional football team.
But then, they had to be. They had five turnovers to one for the 49ers, who in turn scored 13 points off the Saints’ miscues but gave up none on their lone fumble. That was a contributing factor, but in the end it was a one-score game, with the NFL’s best defense going against the NFL’s best offense.
And like that, lightning struck for both teams, and from that we learn five things about the Niners and their 36-32 victory.
Alex Is OK
It’s safe to say that the local and national criticism of Alex Smith can now be put in the cemetery. If he had failed in either late drives against the Saints, the hooks would have been out. But he answered.
The first one came with just under two minutes left, and it was a simple throw up the sideline. That is, with the hopes of the entire season hinging on the outcome. And here’s something for all Saints fans to consider.
The Niners, not a great throwing team, have to throw. They’re down and it’s late. A throw is coming. After two short, it’s second-and-10 on 33, and the offseason looms. Vernon Davis is split to the left. Malcolm Jenkins was in 1-on-1 coverage. And it was a heave. A throw. A “cut it loose.” And Davis came down with the catch.
But here’s where Alex gets credit. That throw had to be on and it was, a 37-yard gain that got the Niners in field goal range. But there’s another question that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has to answer for, but that’s a start.
Later in the game, first and goal from the 14, with 14 seconds left but trailing 32-29, here’s where Smith gets all the credit. It was a play that had Vernon Davis going to the post. It was a throw that had to be on-time and spot-on in terms of accuracy. And it was.
The laser beam struck Davis on the 5 of his jersey’s 85 and implanted itself into his soul. Saints defender Roman Harper delivered the hit, and it was big-time hit, but the throw was too good. You can call it The Catch II, but I’ll call it Alex’s Best Throw.
It was a playoff game that existed with a high-level of tension that only increased as the end drew near. But here’s another question for Gregg Williams, the Saints DC.
The Niners faced first-and-10 near their own 40 with less than two minutes remaining. The Niners were down 32-29. Vernon Davis ran a simple cross pattern. Malcolm Jenkins had the coverage. Davis beat him to the inside and Smith’s pass, as is the tendency in intermediate throws over the middle, was spot-on. Davis had the ball in stride.
And here’s where Jenkins was at a disadvantage. He couldn’t haul down Davis. More to the point, he had no help in that the coverage was “single deep,” meaning Roman Harper was far away. He rushed up but was late and missed the tackle. Davis took it down to the Saints’ 20. That was 25 yards after the catch.
That one is on Gregg Williams.
The pressure defense of the Saints had some plays but in the end the fact that they left the Niners best receiver in one-on-one coverage late in the game was a fault. Moreover, it was a credit to the Niners’ staff of taking advantage.
Donte Whitner’s vicious hit on Pierre Thomas that knocked the ball out of the Saints running backs’ hands as well as out of the game set the tone. The Niners came to hit. They knew Brees was going to get his numbers. He’s too goods. Whitner (pictured here on coverage on Jimmy Graham) provided the wood.
Brees made throws other quarterbacks only dream about – missiles to back shoulders that kept the ball away from closing safeties, spot-on drops to streaking receivers down the sideline (Marques Colston’s 25-yard TD catch in the second quarter), not to mention his ability to elude the rush and throw the ball away. He’s Hall of Fame.
And now that we can assess the game from after the game, there’s no doubt that the five turnovers hurt the Saints. The plus-4 advantage to the Niners added 13 points to their side of the issue.
Of them all, however, there’s no doubt that Whitner’s hit on Pierre Thomas early in the first quarter, a vicious whomp after a short completion that dropped Thomas and made him drop the ball, turned the game around. It was a critical play that turned what looked like a 7-0 Saints game into a Niners advantage. After a change of possessions, the Niners had a 7-0 lead. That’s a 14-0 turnaround.
Of course, it has to be said that no one will remember the fact that Whitner whiffed on a tackle of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham with just a little more than 1:30 left in the game. The 66-yard catch and run for TD ended up giving the Saints a 32-29 lead. And though Patrick Willis had good coverage, Brees knew that a high throw was a sure catch.
Whitner played the ball and not the man, a complete sin in light of time and timeouts left for the Saints. Not that it matters now.
Give offensive coordinator Greg Roman credit on this one.
The Niners faced third-and-8 from the Saints’ 28 with about 90 seconds remaining. They were down 24-23. They had an All-Pro kicker on the sidelines. The tendency is to go conservative. Instead, they came up with something that the Saints nor Niners fans ever expected: “QB 9.”
That’s the call, a straight roll and run left by Smith. It helped that receiver Kyle Williams cracked hard on Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan to free up the side. Michael Crabtree added a block and then the pulling Joe Staley executed a nice roll block on Roman Harper and Smith had a 28-yard TD run for a 29-24 lead. It is the longest QB run for TD in franchise history.
That was the first, but the second really suggests the nature of 49er football under Harbaugh. On the last-gasp drive in which the 49ers trailed 32-29, Smith hit Davis on the big play to get them in scoring position. After a completion he spiked the ball. It was third-and-14 from the Saints’ 14 seconds left.
Lots of coaches go conservative and play for the tie and overtime. But Geep Chryst, the Niners’ quarterback coach, signaled that “Vernon Post” was going to be open. The call was made and Harbaugh approved it.
Davis lined up near the left tackle, with Brett Swain spread wide left. Swain ran the short “stop” pattern six yards from scrimmage. A little deeper in the same vector Davis did the “post” bend at the goal line. Smith made as precise and timely throw as any 49er made in similar situations.
Roman Harper delivered the hit. He was not beat. But the throw was so good it could not be caught. It was more the throw than the catch. And give the 49er staff and players credit for making the gutsy call and pulling it off.
The Niners gave up 458 yards net passing, and had three receivers record more than 100 yards in catches. And they still won. But for the 63 times that Drew Brees threw, they averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. Alex Smith averaged 6.3. I was a disparity Niners could live with, especially since Brees was intercepted twice, Smith none.
At one time, the Niners were 2-of-13 in third-down conversions. After four second-half possessions, their offensive output included series that had run 16 plays. The defense had to hold off the Saints, and they were getting tired.
What the Niners did was cover and tackle. For most of the game. Dashon Goldson’s miss on Darren Sproles was the Niners first that resulted in a big play for the Saints’ 24-23 lead. Donte Whitner’s miss on Jimmy Graham was the others.
Still, the Niners’ superior special teams play, as in terms of kickoff and punt coverage, had a big role in the win. The Saints had so much ground to cover. Remember, they gave up 458 yards passing but it came down to a 6.8-yard average per attempt. That’s 32-percent less than than what they got last week in the win over Detroit.
Also, the Saints time and again had to start offensive possessions deep in their own territory. They only had one start on the other side of the 50, but it came via a late first-half Alex Smith fumble. No harm, not foul.
Frank Gore ended the game with 13 rushes for 89 yards for a strong 6.9 average per carry. But it was his 42-yard burst late in the game that started the fast-paced scoring frenzy. It was a critical play, but in the end it might get washed over in light of the heroics that followed.
The Niners are a strong, resilient team that uses a vicious defense to go along with state-of-the-art special teams to accommodate a middling offense. They are not going away.