Saints Can Attack the 49ers Through the Air & on the Ground

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Saints Can Attack the 49ers Through the Air & on the Ground
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With news coming out of San Francisco late Wednesday evening that head coach Jim Harbaugh had chosen second-year quarterback Colin Kapernick as his starting quarterback for Sunday's crucial matchup at New Orleans, it would seem that a scouting report and defensive game plan would be in order here. 

But two factors play into the choice to discuss the 49ers' defense, and the Saints' attack against it, here. 

First, most football fans saw parts of the 'Niners game on Monday night against the Bears. Most people saw what Kaepernick did to one of the league's best defenses. I would only be adding to the noise, should I discuss ad nauseum Kaepernick and his potential and the possibility of him brutally murdering the Saints' shoddy and battered secondary. 

Second, as Tyson Langland mentioned on The NOLA Rundown earlier this week, the 'Niners are a bit overrated in the secondary and as a rushing defense. 

Instead, it seems appropriate to discuss the other side of the football. Of course the San Francisco defense was even more dominant Monday night than the 'Niners offense. Second-year pass-rusher Aldon Smith had 5.5 sacks against the Bears' horrific offensive line and the statue that was Jason Campbell. 

The Saints are unlikely to give up half the pressure the Bears did on national television. And even if they do, Drew Brees is 1,000 times more mobile than Campbell ever was or could be, and thus can step out of one or two sacks. 

Here is what the numbers look like for the 49ers' defense through 10 games in 2012: 

Team Stats and Rankings

 
  Tot Yds & TO   Passing Rushing      
  Pts Yds Ply Y/P 1stD Cmp Att Yds TD Int NY/A 1stD Att Yds TD Y/A 1stD TO FL 1stPy
Team Offense 245 3648 599 6.1 210 184 266 1993 15 5 6.7 107 302 1655 11 5.5 89 9 4 14
Team Defense 134 2772 613 4.5 167 198 333 1829 9 8 5.1 105 257 943 3 3.7 41 15 7 21
Lg Rank Offense 13 13     10   31 27 14 2 11   6 1 6 1   2 6  
Lg Rank Defense 1 2     3   9 2 2 16 1   11 6 2 3   17 11  

Table from www.pro-football-reference.com (Defensive statistics are highlighted in Bold). 

The table shows the San Francisco is giving up an average of 4.5 yards per play, which is surprising for a Vic Fangio defense known for its stinginess. 

But, it is also impressive that the unit has given up fewer than 200 yards passing per game. And the 3.7 yard average per rush attempt against makes the 'Niners one of the finest run defenses in the game. 

Based on those statistics alone, it seems that the Niners' defense is as good as it was a season ago. To some extent it is. The clip here shows one reason the defense is so good. 

Justin and Aldon Smith are lined up together in the 3-4 Even alignment. Justin Smith is going to work against the Bears' left guard one-on-one, while Aldon will go to work against poor J'Marcus Webb. 

The 'Niners do not run a stunt, or game. It is really one-on-one football. But Justin and Aldon Smith are two of the most talented front-seven players in football. 

Thinking of how the Saints can slow these guys down, a few things come to mind. First, the Saints have been using backup guard Eric Olsen often throughout the team's winning streak as an extra tackle in the run game. 

Whether the Saints choose to use him for the purpose of running the ball to keep the team off guard and then mixing in some play-action passing remains to be seen.

Even if the team elects to do something different, it is likely Pete Carmichael and Aaron Kromer will choose some form of aid for his young tackles (undrafted rookie Bryce Harris is expected to start at right tackle). 

That being said, the 'Niners are vulnerable to certain things the Saints do well. 

First, in the running game, the Saints can give the 'Niners certain looks that will cause them to succeed in similar ways to what the Giants did against them in their 26-3 victory in October. Here is the first:

As I mentioned here, the Saints' offensive line has handled opposing rush defenses when it utilizes an extra blocker. While the running game has excelled mainly by using misdirection running, the team is more than capable of using straight-ahead runs to attack a vulnerable defense. 

It will look to do what the Giants did here by matching the "box count" from one side of the center to the end of the line. Here we see the Giants match the 'Niners. Here's the result:

The Giants do a wonderful job of "getting a hat on a hat" at the point of attack. NaVorro Bowman reads the blocks and seals himself. The Giants guard and center work to seal the nose tackle and fellow inside backer Pat Willis. 

That part in the Red Sea (if you will) is exactly what the Saints have excelled at doing in the running game in the past few weeks. And it's exactly what the team will have to do against San Francisco on Sunday.

If the Saints can hold up in pass protection, the team is more than capable of making some plays on the outside. The following stills give us an idea how it can be done. 

This pre-snap still shows us that by going Trips to the left side with a back to the right, the Giants get a Cover 1 look with the safety on the running back's side and force the other safety to play centerfield. Playing centerfield, he has to watch the three-receiver side and is slow to recover to the deep "9" route on the right side. 

Much like the previous clip, a 3-by-1 formation causes the 'Niners to play a Cover 1 coverage. Again, the safety on the running back's side is responsible for him in coverage and comes up to play him. The opposite safety actually comes down to play the drag route with the safety who just came down rotating back for the deep pass. 

The Niners' safeties have plenty of range and ability to roam sideline-to-sideline. But quick decision-making can easily defeat that. And burners like Joe Morgan and/or Devery Henderson can beat man coverage up the sideline just like Domenik Hixon does here. 

Here we see Domenik Hixon was able to get past Chris Culiver in man-to-man coverage. By running underneath routes, safety help is slow. 

The Giants' use of the 3x1 formations led to man coverage with one high safety. That is a mismatch for the 49ers' defense. 

So it's pretty simple for the Saints' offense on Sunday. Run a lot of 3x1 formations, use Olsen as an extra tackle to create an advantage in the run game and in pass protection and go deep. 

Of course it's not quite that simple. But these are just a few concepts to watch for in this pivotal contest on Sunday afternoon. 

 

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