The San Francisco 49ers can credit the men up front, middle and back for this notch in the win column.
In 31-21 fashion, Jim Harbaugh’s road warriors outmuscled the New Orleans Saints for the 49ers’ eighth win of the season. The Saints dropped to 5-6 and in dire straights for playoff relevancy.
From San Francisco’s perspective, however, the postseason is as relevant a storyline as any from this latest victory.
And it was certifiable dominance in the trenches, by the linebackers and over the top when it mattered most that produced such attractive prospects.
The 49ers collected five sacks, surrendered a mere 59 yards rushing and produced two turnovers-turned-touchdowns on defense against an offensive juggernaut.
Despite operating as an undeniable pass-first team, the Saints feature a formidable rushing game with the three-headed monster of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas (even without a hobbled Darren Sproles). It allows the New Orleans offense to function efficiently and without compromising predictability.
Yet, San Francisco shut those boys down and rendered the prolific attack fully one-dimensional.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga had one of his best days holding point in the middle of the line, and backup Ricky Jean-Francois was effective as well. Saints running backs ran into brick walls constantly.
That said, Drew Brees really couldn't care less whether or not a balance exists on his side of the ball—he can tell the defense exactly what he’s planning without it even mattering. He and his receiving corps are simply that good.
A league-leading 31 touchdowns in the passing game speaks for itself.
This elite ability—and the 49ers’ dominating counterattack—is exactly what makes the road team’s defensive efforts that incredible.
With Brees dropping back time and again, the 49ers’ three tiers of top-notch talent showed up with big-time performances.
Justin Smith did his best reenactment of last year’s NFC Championship Game by strong-arming the Saints offensive line with multiple sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. His lumberjack appendages were in full multitask force with eyes on NFL immortality.
His D-line brethren Aldon Smith produced nearly identical results in a rather solid follow-up outing to his record-setting performance against the Bears last week. He collected 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and two QB hits.
On the next level of the defense, linebackers sporting the red and gold were a captivating tour de force.
Patrick Willis led the team in tackles and completely took All-World tight end Jimmy Graham out of the game. Willis and veritable clone NaVorro Bowman covered the field sideline to sideline throughout the afternoon (save for David Thomas’ touchdown catch).
Outside ‘backer Ahmad Brooks was the man of the hour, though.
He was the most disruptive 49er in the backfield—amassing numerous QB hits, teaming up with Willis on a sack and neutralizing Saints ball carriers. He headed the linebacker clinic even more so with his work in coverage—exemplified by his first career touchdown on a pick-six in the second quarter.
It absolutely changed the course of the game in favor of the 49ers. Ted Ginn had just coughed up a fumble that led to a Marques Colston score and a 14-7 Saints advantage.
Brooks made quick work of that misfortune with his defensive score.
The play of the game, however, arrived via the remarkable safety tandem hailing from the league’s No. 2-ranked defense.
Dashon Goldson executed a textbook hit on Colston—Roger Goodell, please take note—leading to the otherwise sure-handed receiver coughing up the ball. Strong safety Donte Whitner made an equally heady play by snagging the football midair and taking it 42 yards to the house.
The latest version of defensive touchdown pay dirt increased the 49ers’ lead to 28-14, and one that they would not relinquish.
In a matchup where TV cameras focused so much on quarterback Alex Smith’s dejected countenance—and Colin Kaepernick’s deservedly beaming smile—it was the 49ers’ performance on defense that shone most brightly.
Time for quarterback controversy to take a backseat.
At least for a little bit.
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