Saints-49ers: 4 Reflections from San Francisco's Epic 36-32 Victory
Like a spring break student overlooking in the hotel room after a long night of partying, sometimes the only thing to do is keep going. No need to worry about the consequences, the epic nature of the previous day brings on a sense of singularity.
And with that, fans of the San Francisco 49ers around the world can linger on the 36-32 NFC divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints just a little longer. In party terms, it’s “hair on the dog,” or in literal terms, a Bloody Mary for breakfast to keep the celebration going.
Looking back, there were so many big plays, and the comments afterward from both sides reveal much about this game. And from them we see why the 49ers went from epic losers to epic winners, thanks to the heroics of one Alex Smith, seventh year quarterback out of Utah.
[Note: All quotes taken from 49ers press relations release after the game, or otherwise noted.]
Calling Gregg Williams
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Calling Gregg Williams.
Saints coach Sean Payton stood up on the lectern and wouldn’t answer the question.
Can you discuss the defensive breakdown at the end of the game?
“The game went back and forth on offense, defense and the kicking game.”
After you had the three-point lead, you had a lot of guys up front and not deep.
“We were in two or three different—two deep, single safety. Typically, you’re trying to not show one consistent look. There were two different drives, really. There was the first one and then the one at the end. The key was we’re protecting a field goal, really, not a touchdown.
They’ve got a really good kicker who’s kicking from that 30, 35-yard line. So we tried to mix things up.”
James Varney of the Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans brought up the key point:
“It seemed surprising that, in the final minutes, the Saints did not drop more defenders into coverage to deal with Davis. Instead, New Orleans massed rushers at the line, and that left Davis in thin one-on-one coverage. The Saints made [safety Malcolm] Jenkins the prime defender on Davis when [Roman] Harper's sore ankle slowed him early and the collision between Harper and Jenkins in the first quarter injured Harper's quad."
Coach Sean Payton said the Saints' schemes in the end were less odd than they appeared. ”We were in two or three different coverages: two deep, single safety, so typically you're trying to not show just one consistent look," he said. "There were two different drives, though. The key was we were protecting a field goal, really, not a touchdown. If you sit in prevent, all of a sudden they've got a real good kicker who all of a sudden is kicking from the 30-, 35-yard line. So you try to mix things up."
In retrospect, the Niners have only two players capable of breaking big plays—Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. Having them doubled while rushing four would seem to have been the best scenario for the Saints.
“That is not our style of defense. We don’t play prevent, we have never played it, and nothing is new. Nothing has changed, so we live by the blitz, we die by the blitz,” said Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Alex Smith’s Heroics
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Two late drives of 80 and 85 yards under great duress, when the throws have to be spot-on, as do the decisions. And afterwards, there’s Alex Smith, the fans celebrating all around him as Candlestick Park rocked like it hasn’t rocked in nearly a decade, looking as cool as ever.
He’s now a winner; he’s proven himself. He’s not Brady nor Rodgers nor Brees. But he’s done it when it had to be done when the stakes are huge.
“I felt Alex played extremely bold. Might be time to give Alex a little credit, huh?” said coach Jim Harbaugh afterward.
The thing is, if you got to start the league over and pick all the current players, you would not pick Alex Smith first. You wouldn’t pick him over Drew Brees, but there it is at the end of the game: Alex’s QB rating was 103.2 to Brees’ 93.5.
Did Smith outplay Brees? Perhaps not. And the difference in the rating was that Brees threw two interceptions. Other than that, he was brilliant. But not brilliant enough in light of what he had to do. The ultimate judgment of a quarterback does not fall in yards, ratings or TD passes. It comes from W's. That’s why Otto Graham, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana rank among the best among those who know the game.
It’s about getting enough done at the right time to win. Yards and records mean a lot less in the long run than trophies.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
As opaque as Jim Harbaugh has been in dealing with the local press, he was surprisingly revealing after the Saints game. And his answers showed how the Niners staff make the decisions they did.
The scene: 3rd-and-2 from the Saints’ 23. Niners down 24-23. The Saints have only one timeout left. Kicker David Akers waits on the sidelines. The strategy seems to scream for a run to make the Saints burn their last timeout and then have to traverse the field against a great defense with no way to stop the clock if tackled on the field.
Then fullback Bruce Miller entered the huddle. Oops. Five-yard penalty for too many men in the huddle. Third-and-7 from the 28. And then came the call: QB 9. Out of the shotgun snap, Smith sprinted dead left, a quarterback sweep.
Again, here’s where the Saints aggressiveness hurt them. They bunched up again at the line to blitz and force Smith’s hand. Except they overloaded the defense’s left, the offense’s right side. Let’s let offensive coordinator Greg Roman take it from here.
And what about the…the QB nine?
“I had that as a critical call for the game and they were overload blitzing us over here and it was completely a 50-50 roll of the dice on what side they were going to blitz us on. If they overload blitzed into it, it would have been a mess. So that was just one of those deals where you have to roll the dice and just go with it. But, conversely, if they blitz away from it, a big payoff and that’s what happened.”
Like poker players hiding their cards, Roman went all in against Gregg Williams, who did not get the ace on the flop.
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Here’s why Jim Harbaugh is Coach of the Year, why the Niners staff should get Staff of the Year (if such a thing ever existed), and why the players executed so well. Granted, the players have to make the play, and Smith’s 14-yard laser beam into Vernon Davis’ chest that resulted in the winning TD with nine seconds left deserves praises for years to come, for Smith’s accuracy and velocity, for Davis’ hands and tenacity.
But let’s look at the situation. Fourteen ticks on the clock, the Niners down 32-29. Again, Akers is on the sideline for what would appear to be a gimme field goal. At least overtime was assured. But here’s where Harbaugh is a little different, but also where he his preparation during the week.
First, quarterback coach Geep Chryst noticed that the Saints like to play safety Roman Harper about two yards deep in the end zone. That would leave enough room for an intermediate-range route for Davis to run 12 to 14 yards and cut in front of Harper.
Was there any impulse to play it safe at the end and just go for the tying field goal?
“No, zero,” said Greg Roman. “They’re a great team and once Vernon made that huge play down at the 20, Geep Chryst, our quarterbacks coach who was in Carolina and played against them twice a year, he knew there was a red zone tendency that he really felt strongly about and it really paid off hitting Vernon on that bang-post.”
And because of that, the Saints were sent home with a stinging defeat and the Niners, as Alex Smith said, get to keep playing. Memorably so. Memorably so.