San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints: Breaking Down Saints' Game Plan

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San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints: Breaking Down Saints' Game Plan
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Some games just mean more.

When the 7-2 New Orleans Saints host the 6-3 San Francisco 49ers, more than just playoff positioning is on the line. In this Clash of the Titans battle, respect is on the line.

The 2011 New Orleans Saints (13-3) was one of the greatest teams in the franchise's history. In fact, it may go down as one of the greatest teams in NFL history (offensively). The 5,476 passing yards by quarterback Drew Brees, an NFL record, was supported by the league's sixth-ranked rushing attack. 

The 2011 San Francisco 49ers marked the official reemergence of one of the great NFL's greatest franchises. After years of sub-.500 play, the 49ers achieved a 13-3 record behind the league's No.1-ranked defense. 

It was only fitting that the best offensive and defensive teams would meet in the playoffs. And by all accounts it was worth the wait. In what will go down as one of the greatest playoff games ever, the 49ers edged the Saints 36-32 in a thriller that was in doubt until the waning moments.

Schematically, the Saints executed their game plan to the tune of 462 yards passing, exposing a hole in the league's best defense. But in what has now become typical fashion, the Saints only called 13 designed runs (resulting in 32 yards).

The lack of commitment to the run caused New Orleans to throw the ball 63 times in that playoff loss, consequently committing two crucial turnovers (both interceptions).

Passing the ball an inordinate number of times usually leads to mistakes. It's the law of averages.

Even though you may not achieve the success you want on the ground, the threat of a running game forces the defense to defend all areas of the field. When you're one dimensional on offense you make things easier for the opposition.

The Saints should've walked away with that game handedly, and 2012's regular-season rematch was much of the same. Two more interceptions were the straw that broke camel's back—in particular a pick-six right before the half.

Looking forward to this Week 11 showdown, the Saints are now the better team, period. The defenses are just about even in ranking, fourth for San Francisco, fifth for New Orleans (although the 49ers are much better against the run), and there's no comparison between the two offenses. 

Although the 49ers are last in the NFL in passing, being the fifth-ranked rushing attack will keep them in the game. Especially when you consider the Saints are last in the NFL against the run in yards per attempt (5.0). 

Schematically speaking, football character is the ability to win in the trenches. Can you run the ball, and can you stop the run?  

As great as the Saints are, the 49ers are the type of team that exemplifies playoff football. The 49ers might lack the flash of being able to gain chunks of yards through the air, but they are built to win by rendering opposing offenses one dimensional.

New Orleans' 49-17 demolishing of the Dallas Cowboys shows that the Saints can combine their normal flash with the ruggedness of a smashmouth football team. This contest can go a long way in continuing to build football character for the Saints.

All they have to do is commit to it.

But will they?


49ers Offense

San Francisco is all about power. The 49ers want to dominate teams up front and challenge them to match that physicality for the duration of the contest. Eventually they wear teams down and begin to gain large chunks on the ground. This is truly one of the only teams in the NFL that's built from the inside out.

The offensive line is full of studs across the board. Collectively, they are the five roughest and toughest group of linemen in the NFL. They will bloody your nose in the power game and are athletic enough to execute pulls and traps. 

Both the Saints and 49ers have given up only 21 sacks on the season. But San Francisco's 4.5 yards per rushing attempt is far above New Orleans output (3.8).

The 49ers have a plan, and they rarely deviate from it. Be prepared for a plethora of offensive formations all designed at generating downhill runs. Look for "22 personnel" out of multiple formations for the majority of the game. Fullback Bruce Miller is the perfect hammer for this type of offense.

He can block, catch and pick up short yardage when necessary. He will often act as a third tight end in certain sets.

Running back Frank Gore is the truth. As successful as he has been in his career, he still doesn't garner the type of attention he deserves. While not the most athletic of ball-carriers, his vision separates him from the pack. He's not the flashiest of runners; he's just one of the most productive.

Coach Jim Harbaugh does a wonderful job of mixing in power and counter plays. It's truly hard to get a bead on what's coming next. Make no mistake about it, this is a West Coast offense, but it's not your daddy's West Coast offense (unless your dad is Harbaugh, of course). 

NFL Rewind
Via NFL Rewind

This play starts out in the two-back pistol formation, but transforms into the "Diamond" out of "22 personnel." This is the type of football that separates men from boys.

Now, theoretically, this type of personnel grouping is geared towards running the ball. But when your tight ends are Vernon Davis (a top-three talent at his position), Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek your options are almost endless.  

Via NFL Rewind

The 49ers often run the famed read-option out of this formation, which would be a handful in itself, but when you pull the ball back to throw, you force a base defense to defend some of the most athletic tight ends in the league.

The 49ers could essentially ride this grouping against the Saints in an attempt to control the clock. The Saints don't have any proven pass defenders at the linebacker position so that would be trouble. They could employ nickel and dime coverages out of the three-safety set, but they run the risk of being gashed in the run game.

This will be the toughest package for the Saints to defend because of the flexibility of the personnel. When you take into account that quarterback Colin Kaepernick is one of the best run threats in the league, then you officially have a conundrum on your hands. 

The 49ers also do a great job utilizing pre-snap motion and shifts. They will ultimately make the defense declare its coverage before the snap of the ball. You'll rarely see uptempo offense from them because of that aspect.

Kaepernick has been struggling in his second year as a starter. With a completion percentage of 56.4, combined with only nine TDs and six INTs, it's safe to say the 49ers will have trouble winning this one through the air. 

Most have blamed Kaepernick's struggles on the lack of weapons at his disposal, and to a certain degree their right. But often he struggles to anticipate his throws, and he still lacks touch on short and intermediate passes. 

Stopping the run and forcing receivers Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham to take over the game will be ideal. Putting No. 1 corner Keenan Lewis on Boldin could be the key to forcing a one-dimensional attack.  

The 49ers have trouble stretching the field, and if their resident field-stretcher Davis can't go...it could be curtains! 


49ers Defense

The 49ers are the truest 3-4-based outfit in the NFL. They rarely do anything eye-opening as far as scheme; they just line up and dominate with some of the best players at their respective positions. 

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Bowman and Willis

The inside linebacker duo of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis is virtually without peer. Both have every single trait you would want in a linebacker, and both could star in any scheme. The defense is designed around letting these two land sharks run wild and make plays.

Linemen Ray McDonald, Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey all are capable of making significant plays, but all assist in occupying blockers to ensure the freedom of the dynamic linebacker duo. 

Theoretically, the Saints should spread the 49ers out and pass the ball (as if they won't) until coach Sean Payton feels the need to smoke a cigarette afterward. When they do, they open up the floodgates by way of the offensive line.

Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is the premier talent as his position, although he hasn't played much this season because of off-field problems. But if Smith is on his game, he will dominate Saints left tackle Charles Brown.

Keeping fullback Jed Collins on the field would be in the Saints' best interest. Not only is he in the mold of the 49ers' Miller with his versatility, but he can assist Brown with Smith, as he's a really proficient pass protector. Fellow rushers Ahmad Brooks (6.5 sacks), Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta are all capable of making plays as well.

The Saints' offensive line played its best football against the Dallas Cowboys, but the Cowboys defense isn't in the same stratosphere as San Francisco's.

The 49ers have excellent players in their secondary. The safety duo of Donte Whitner and Eric Reid are every bit as good as the Saints' duo of Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro. Both Reid and Vaccaro are stud rookies, and will battle for the distinction as the NFL's top safety for the rest of their careers.

Both are versatile, with ball-hawking being a strength of Reid's, and physicality being what makes Vaccaro standout. Coincidentally, both suffered concussions on Sunday and are uncertain to play. 

The corner trio of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock are all good players. But none of them are great, and each can be a liability at times. 

Coach Payton undoubtedly knows this and is staring at the passing part of his play-call sheet as we speak.

Come on Coach Payton, flip the sheet over to the run portion and show these guys real Saints football... just like you did Dallas!

 

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