The New Orleans Saints offense is known for astronomical passing yards and a plethora of points but not for their turnovers, which have been an issue in the first two playoff games. After two giveaways in the playoff opener against the Detroit Lions, the Saints came back the following weekend with five more that ultimately proved too much to overcome as the San Francisco 49ers were victorious in a dramatic finish.
San Francisco's physical defense was the hot topic for much of Saturday's game, battering and bruising the Saints' skill players each time they touched the ball while pressuring and baiting quarterback Drew Brees into bad decisions.
While the stat sheet shows a defense that allowed 32 points and 472 total yards, what it does not show is the disruption of rhythm that the 49ers defenders caused to the Saints' passing game. Equivalent to an earthquake along the San Andreas fault, the 49ers defense took down the Saints one player at a time, with the trenches being the epicenter.
Dissecting the Pass Rush
Led by defensive end Justin Smith and rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith, the front seven of the defense abused the Saints' offensive line by giving them various looks to confuse protection and then sending only three or four pass rushers. This was often the case for the 49ers, and it proved to be effective as they got to Brees three times and pressured him on multiple other occasions.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense utilized both one-gap concepts, which asked the pass rushers to account for and shoot through a single gap in an effort to pressure the quarterback, and two-gap concepts that required defensive linemen like Isaac Sopoaga to be responsible for the gap to each side.
In the process, aforementioned pass rushers Justin Smith and Aldon Smith did an excellent job of winning one-on-one matchups, and a big reason for this was their physical abilities.
Defensive end Justin Smith displayed his hulk-like strength against offensive guard Carl Nicks on several occasions, getting his hands inside of Nick's breast pads and then sinking his hips, using his lower body strength to bulrush the blocker back into Brees.
Meanwhile, rookie Aldon Smith used his long arms to stack and shed blocks before executing swim and counter rip moves to gain ground on the quarterback. Smith does not have elite short-area quickness, but he's a very long athlete who is able to create separation between himself and the blocker.
Because of this length, the blocker is often left reaching to get inside of Smith's pads in an effort to gain leverage, leaving the blocker more vulnerable to pass-rush moves than he normally would be.
The two pass rushers proved to be too much to handle for the Saints, especially when they turned to their key "T-E" stunt package. This package was a stunt initiated by defensive tackle ("T") Justin Smith stunting outside the offensive tackle while defensive end ("E") Aldon Smith went from the outside to the interior of the offensive line, between the guard and tackle.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman
Arguably the two most athletic linebackers in football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have been crucial to the success of the defense this season, and their importance showed in this game. Willis and Bowman played the majority of the snaps in the game because of their versatility as run defenders and pass defenders.
Willis has been the heart and soul of the defense, relaying calls to the rest of his teammates before every snap and making sure they are lined up correctly as well as making several game-changing plays while teammate NaVorro Bowman has surprised many this season by his play.
Bowman's ability to take on blocks and defend the run has been impressive as he came out of a Penn State defensive system that had defensive linemen protect him from taking on blockers at the second level. He's also played the pass very well because of his range and instincts.
The two 49ers linebackers proved to be key in stopping the Saints pass offense in this game, covering tight end Jimmy Graham in man coverage while also double-covering running back Darren Sproles underneath, which prevented him from gaining yards after the catch. They also played the run very well and sniffed out screen passes—a deadly part of the Saints offense.
San Francisco's secondary was arguably the most impressive aspect of the defense, blanketing and closing in on the wide receivers in a hurry. There were several coverages played to combat the Saints passing game, such as Cover 1 Robber and Cover 3.
Cover 1 Robber is a combination coverage concept that features both man and zone coverage. In this concept, the linebackers are in man coverage against the running backs.
In the secondary, the cornerbacks were to play man coverage on the wide receivers while the single free safety in the deep middle of the field was in zone coverage along with the strong safety in the intermediate levels of the field.
The free safety's responsibility was to backpedal at the snap with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and cover any deep passes thrown by Brees. Meanwhile, the strong safety was to break downhill and "rob" any passes once (and only when) the ball was thrown.
Another coverage the 49ers turned to was Cover 3, a coverage concept that had an extra defender placed in the box while a single safety was in the deep middle of the field. It's a pure zone coverage, with four underneath in coverage—LBs and —along with three deep defenders—CBs and S..
This defensive concept allowed the zone defenders to aggressively attack the ball downfield and look to force turnovers.
Putting It All Together
The 49ers defensive success in this game was not a surprise because they work very well as an entire unit. Led by the pass rush, the defense put it all together to apply pressure on quarterback Drew Brees through the use of several different fronts and coverages as well as by closing down quickly on all passes, thus not allowing opportunities for yards after the catch.
An example of this was seen late in the first quarter on a third-down sack by pass rusher Aldon Smith.
New Orleans came out of the huddle with 11 Spread personnel package, which features a single back and tight end that is flexed out (three yards from the OL) while the 49ers countered this with two down linemen and four linebackers to go along with five defensive backs.
As can be seen in the image, the 49ers looked to get physical with the Saints' skill players with press alignment by the linebacker and cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. The two safeties showed a two-high deep safety shell before the snap, implying that it was going to be a coverage that would help the cornerbacks over the top.
When the ball was snapped, the Saints' five pass blockers were faced with three pass rushers, the two main ones—the Smiths—coming from their left with one-on-one matchups against the left tackle and guard.
Defensive end Justin Smith took off into the A gap —area between guard and center —to occupy the two pass blockers and create a one-on-one matchup for rookie Aldon Smith against left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
This would be a problem for Bushrod because of his issues with lengthy pass rushers. Bushrod does not bend at his knees to sink into his stance, instead bending at the waist and lunging forward. Because of this, he is susceptible to pass-rush moves, such as the swim move Smith pulled on him on this play to get to Brees.
In the secondary, the 49ers jammed the Saints' pass catchers and rolled down a safety into the middle of the field to cover any intermediate routes while another one was expected to cover any deep routes from the middle of the field. Simultaneously, the cornerbacks were in man coverage on the wide receivers. This created the aforementioned Cover 1 Robber cover concept.
Much like the rest of the game, the 49ers pass defenders closed down on all routes while the simple three-man pass rush broke through the pocket and suffocated Drew Brees with a sack by the relentless Aldon Smith.
Fighting for the Championship
Next week, the San Francisco 49ers will once again have their hands full when they meet the New York Giants.
Like the Saints, the New York Giants also have several weapons that can vertically challenge the secondary. The 49ers will have to once again rely on a strong pass rush from defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith as well as blanket coverage from the defensive backs.
I expect them to force turnovers against quarterback Eli Manning but once again for it to be a close game.