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

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49ers vs. Saints: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Only 19 starts into his NFL career and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a perfect 5-0 in games versus top-level quarterbacks.

Established veteran leaguers like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have all been at the losing end of a postgame handshake with the 25-year-old prodigy, witnessing up close and personal what he is capable of.

Like a lightning bolt, Kaepernick instantly weaponized the quarterback position for San Francisco, enabling the team to keep pace with the high-octane units in the league, which is exactly what he’ll be called to do in Week 11:

On Sunday versus a deadly New Orleans Saints team, the 49ers are going to need all their resources if they are to pull out a must-win on the road.

Not only is the quarterback going to have to be in tiptop shape but this team is also going to need to execute a watertight game plan on offense, all the while smothering All-Pro passer Drew Brees defensively. If coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. truly hope to accomplish this, they’re going to have to pull out all the stops.

Bottom line, they cannot hold back, and they cannot afford to field another shoddy offensive game plan. Here is an outline of what the 49ers can do to secure a road win at the Superdome.

 

Anti-Blitz: Rush Four, Drop Seven

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The last two times the 49ers played the Saints, their key to victory was the ability to tee up this New Orleans offense. They brought a hellacious pass rush, sacking the quarterback eight times for minus-63 yards, which prevented Drew Brees from ever truly establishing a rhythm.

Now, New Orleans is playing lights-out, but the Niners defense happens to match up very well with their offense. This is due to San Francisco’s defensive line being far greater than their offensive line and the fact that it can generate pressure with just four, rather than sacrificing bodies in coverage to blitz the quarterback.

It also doesn’t hurt that their linebackers can run with the Saints’ hybrid players at tight end and running back. Having stars who can match up with their stars and win one-on-ones is a strategic advantage most don't have. 

That being the case, the 49ers must play to their strengths.

In the above video, you'll see that the Niners only rush three on 3rd-and-long. 

Most teams like to send pressure in those kind of situations, but the 49ers know they have a mutant in Justin Smith, among many others. That allows them to drop eight into coverage, which causes Brees to hold on to the ball long enough for the rush to get there. 

They can also help themselves by capitalizing on the use of the nickel package, which they’ll have an opportunity to deploy quite a bit with the looks they’re bound to get from the Saints. New Orleans is going to spread it out with multiple receivers in an attempt to get vertical and create space underneath for Darren Sproles.

So the 49ers have to plan on protecting the field accordingly, while still threatening to attack the offense back.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

In order to do this, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to embrace the package and try different personnel combinations. With this we’re talking about getting Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Aldon Smith as three of four potential down linemen, with Justin Smith at the 0-technique, eating space.

If Tank Carradine is active, he is another player they’ll have to consider.

Fangio will want to favor the pass-rushing personnel he has available, rather than pure run-stopping guys like Glenn Dorsey or even Ray McDonald. This way, they can get downhill with the pass rush and knock Brees off center, while keeping the play in front of them.

Seven defenders in coverage make it tough on any quarterback, especially when they’re still being pressured. Brees won’t be able to confidently make deep throws, and Sproles will have less of a chance of finding a seam with linebackers, corners and safeties sprinkled all over the field.

It would be unadvisable to primitively send extra pressure at Brees throughout the game, specifically because he’ll adjust and rip the defense to shreds. Not only does he have one of the quicker releases but he’s also got it going on between the ears. He’ll recognize blitz and re-route the play to exploit it.

 

High Percentage Passing

Part I: Deploy A Screen Game

Ron Antonelli/Getty Images

Rob Ryan is one of the more trigger-happy defensive coordinators in the NFL, never really tentative when it comes to sending extra pressure. As a proponent of the 3-4 defense, which he recently installed in New Orleans, Ryan has those rush linebackers for a reason.

He intends to collapse the pocket from the outside in.

Outside linebacker Cameron Jordan has been the star in the Saints’ revamped front seven, racking up a team-high six sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries in 2013. Then there’s former Niners linebacker Parys Haralson and the team’s second-leading sack artist Junior Galette, who will also accompany Jordan, helping to create pressure off the edge.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With how susceptible Kaepernick has been to pressure—largely because the lack of receiving options—the 49ers need to slow down the blitz. According to Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus, Kap has one of the worst accuracy percentages in the league under duress. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this.

By calling screen plays, the 49ers can take advantage of Ryan’s natural aggressiveness, and the potential over-pursuit by the outside linebackers in particular. Once the ball is snapped and the LBs have vacated the edge, the Niners just fill in with their O-line and backs, lob it over the rush and get down the field.

Frank Gore is a premier player with nearly 3,000 career receiving yards at 8.5 yards per catch. He can certainly handle more of a receiving role. 

Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James getting their hands on the ball in space, rumbling behind this monstrous line, is also something the team should've been doing since Week 1. It makes too much sense not to happen. It can also be a lynchpin in Sunday's game plan because of the volume of what is a fairly basic strategy.

Beyond your elemental dump-off screens to the tailback, San Francisco can write in middle screens, tunnel screens, throwback screens and even shovel passes.

Overall, it is a high-percentage method of getting the ball out, and it almost always gains yardage, however minor. Not to mention, there is potential for big plays down the field, particularly with Hunter and James, who each have serious burners. Ultimately, this will really challenge a team that does not quite know for its tackling.

And again, coming full circle, it slows down the pass rush over the course of the game, which is priority No. 1.

 

Part II: Work the Underneath Part of the Field

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Last year in New Orleans, the 49ers were able to keep picking up first downs by carving the underneath part of the field. They did not hit anything deep in the passing game. In fact, one of the longest completions of the day was a 40-yarder to Mario Manningham that included 36 yards after the catch.

In the passing game, the Niners kept throwing short-to-intermediate out-breaking routes that made the New Orleans linebackers run sideline to sideline, while challenging their undersized corners to make tackles in space.

Everything they did was outside the numbers; they hardly worked the middle of the field unless they were going deep.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Another thing the 49ers demonstrated in that game was that they do not need their wide receivers to be rolling in order to beat the Saints. In their victory at the Superdome last November, the wideouts only combined for eight catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns on 10 targets.

That’s not much production.

This is a good thing since San Francisco has proven it cannot rely on the wide receiver position this year. So, all built off a high-percentage passing game, the backs, tight ends and Kap’s running ability will be key to moving the football and engineering scoring drives on Sunday.

And by doing this, they play safe football, control the clock and methodically set up the deep shot.

 

Contain the Star Power

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

In their last matchup, the 49ers defense held Darren Sproles to only 65 all-purpose yards, while Jimmy Graham was limited to four receptions for just 33 yards. Even more impressive was that neither of them found the end zone. Very rarely does a team find a way to contain one of these players, much less both of them.

But San Francisco made sacrifices to do so.

In that game, it was fullback Jed Collins and second-string tight end David Thomas who were at the opposite ends of two of Drew Brees’ three touchdown throws (WR Marques Colston accounted for the third). So, even if you take those two away, Brees is going to continue to spread the ball around to find open targets.

It just places more strain on him because, more often than not, he's looking for either Graham or Sproles. 

Bottom line, the 49ers want to go this route, defensively.

They want make Brees try to beat them with his supporting cast of players. The reason being is that it slows down their offense and makes them chip away for 60 minutes, which they’d rather not do, especially for an offense like the Saints. 

This is an offense set up to drop 40 points a game and take chunks of field at a time. It doesn't want to play chess. With the Saints' eagerness to produce big plays, they tend to get a little impatient, and Brees can get antsy.

After being a key component in two wins against New Orleans, even 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman acknowledged that Brees will give the defense chances, saying, “When the score is close, you take a lot more gambles. He’s a gambler,” via the team’s official website.

By containing the stars on the New Orleans offense, the 49ers slow the pace of the game and position themselves to win what is essentially a war of attrition. In a game like that, it'll come down to fundamentals, proficient ball movement on a per-series basis and which team has the better defense. 

That being said, the Niners must dedicate bracket coverage to tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. 

 

Miscellaneous 

  • Stop the Run: This is a dangerous enough passing team; the 49ers cannot afford to have a lackadaisical day versus the run. The sooner they can make the Saints one-dimensional, the better. They're also going to have to be able to stop runs with their front four, knowing the Saints will run out of the shotgun and must be prepared for different style runners. 
  • Take Care of the Football: The last time around, Colin Kaepernick had an interception, and Ted Ginn Jr. fumbled away a punt return. Nevertheless, the 49ers still managed to come away with the win. With less offense than they had a year ago, combined with the return of Sean Payton, San Francisco can’t afford to give the ball away.
  • Tackle: Players like Darren Sproles, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham present headaches for teams, not only because they can catch the ball but because they can also be hard to bring down at times. If this is one of those days that the 49ers defenders are missing tackles, they’ll be at the losing end of this one.
  • Tap No. 85: Per PFF, Vernon Davis is still the most productive tight end in the NFL on a per-route-run basis, leading the way with 2.84 yards. The top spot also means he’s ahead of second-place TE Jimmy Graham (2.76). The Niners have to get Davis going versus a Saints defense that can’t handle this type of weapon.

 

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