A man that commands the NFL’s second-ranked total offense in spectacular fashion is rarely “silenced.”
Brees and Co. produce offensive progression at a stunning clip of 422.7 yards and 29.4 points per game. They even rack up over 380 yards and nearly 24 points in their losing efforts (just two on the season).
The mighty quarterback himself has accounted for 26 of the team’s 31 touchdowns.
In the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Brees boasts a near-perfect 18-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And his team doesn’t lose—it’s 5-0.
So, should the 49ers wave the proverbial white flag and simply forgo their Week 11 matchup?
Not if the old adage of defense wins championships holds true.
The 49ers bring a tenacious No. 6-ranked defensive unit into New Orleans. It’s a group that dominates to the tune of 316.8 yards and 17.2 points per game allowed, including four games of 11 points or fewer given up.
San Francisco’s 20 plays of 20 or more yards and five of 40 or more yards allowed combine for third-fewest in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks also have the third-lowest passer rating (73.1) and passing touchdowns (10) courtesy of this defense.
All-Pro winners Justin Smith and Patrick Willis and veteran safety Donte Whitner lead the 49ers with grit and intelligence from the trenches to the back end.
Come Sunday, then, how can this formidable contingent match wits and silence the indomitable Brees-led Saints?
Let’s break it down.
Put a Spy on Sproles, or Put Him Down
There is no denying the fact that Darren Sproles is a matchup nightmare in the passing game.
Wherever Sproles lines up, a linebacker, safety or some other defender invariably finds himself out of position or outmatched in space. Few can harness his unique combination of speed, vision, sure-handedness and lateral agility.
He leads NFL running backs with 444 yards receiving and zero drops for good reason.
Here is what Sproles accomplished against an unsuspecting Dallas Cowboys squad just before halftime in Week 10.
At the Cowboys' 22-yard line, Brees executes a basic screen by taking the snap from shotgun and creating a brief misdirection to the left. Sproles stands to his right—pausing at the snap—then shifts right and receives a Brees pass with blockers in front.
Sproles gains a head full of steam, as Dallas is late to respond. He weaves his way untouched into the end zone.
His sheer game-breaking ability in space materializes after the Cowboys neglect Sproles and ultimately afford him too much room to maneuver. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick (No. 32) is the worst of the causalities.
The 49ers, fortunately, have the benefit of game film at their disposal.
On a similar play as the one mentioned above, the Buffalo Bills immediately diagnose Sproles’ role out of the backfield.
They pursue him with multiple defenders and collapse the play before it ever really begins. Outside linebacker Mario Williams (No. 94) and safety Jairus Byrd (No. 31) penetrate through the blockers in front and force Sproles to the sideline. Cornerback Nickell Robey (No. 37) makes the key final tackle.
San Francisco can similarly mitigate Sproles in the screen and overall passing game.
Ahmad Brooks sets the edge and pursues ball-carriers in the open field with great effectiveness. The outside backer has not missed a single tackle in pass defense.
Safety Donte Whitner is the ninth-most efficient tackler and ranks No. 7 in coverage proficiency at his position, while Carlos Rogers more than holds his own out of the slot with the No. 2 ranking among cornerbacks.
All-Pro inside backers Willis and NaVorro Bowman, for their part, can control the middle of the field from sideline to sideline. Their top-three status will have them limiting Sproles' yards-after-the-catch production.
Sproles, in other words, will face a host of disciplined defenders who will not fall for his misdirection exploits.
And if laying the wood to the 5’6’’, 190-pounder seems more apt, the 49ers are equipped with hard-hitters across the board.
Good, clean, physical punishment, after all, has pushed the MVP-caliber Sproles from a game once already this year.
Donte “Hitner” just might make an appearance on Sunday.
Keep Graham from Feeling 100 Percent
If Sproles is the greatest mismatch at running back, then Jimmy Graham is quite possibly the greatest mismatch in the entire league—even with a nagging foot injury.
The Saints’ ever-imposing 6’7’’, 265-pound tight end leads the NFL with 10 touchdown catches. He ranks fifth overall with 805 yards receiving and first among his position mates with 20 receptions of 20 or more yards and three of 40-plus.
His tight end-leading four touchdowns and catch rate of 60.0 on passes traveling more than 20 yards lend credence to his proficiency on deep routes.
Any one of his two-touchdown or 100-yard receiving outputs—there are nine in total—illustrate his dominance in the passing game.
We’ll go with his 56-yard score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Graham positions himself on the line of scrimmage to Brees’ left. Brees then pump fakes right while his tight end rolls out and streaks down the numbers.
Bucs’ outside linebacker Dekoda Watson (No. 56) allows Graham a free release. Safety Mark Barron (No. 23) bites on the underneath route, and middle backer Mason Foster (No. 59) is far too late.
Graham runs 56 yards uncovered for the easy score.
Note to self: This is what not to do against the league’s best tight end.
Four weeks later, the New England Patriots show quite the opposite.
Graham lines up wide to the left against Aquib Talib (No. 31). The Patriots’ top press corner jams No. 80 at the line and shadows him over the middle.
Talib is physical with him all the way until support coverage from middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (No. 55) arrives. The play results in an incompletion.
This is textbook execution by New England’s defense from start to finish.
Talib threw off the timing by engaging Graham right away and impeding his progress. Spikes provided the necessary double coverage as the play developed. Graham might have otherwise streaked over the middle and downfield for a huge gain.
(He settled for zero catches on six targets.)
The 49ers can employ a comparable strategy.
Tarell Brown is the team’s most physical corner. Despite his smaller 5’10’’ stature, Brown consistently disrupts receivers with his fiery demeanor and strong hands.
He has a team-leading eight pass breakups and has allowed a scant 58.2 completion percentage in his coverage area.
Brown must lock onto Graham when he lines up out wide. Second-ranked slot corner Rogers can offer initial coverage if Graham moves inside, while Willis, a top-seven inside coverage backer in his own right, supports underneath and down the seam. Bowman will do the same if Willis is occupied with Sproles.
Whitner and outstanding three-interception rookie Eric Reid will serve as the last line of defense over top. Neither has allowed a touchdown reception all year.
Less than 100 percent playing capacity or not, the 49ers must account for Graham with tight man coverage whenever he hits the field. Their speed, athleticism and tenacity must be on full display.
Attack Brees at the Base, Create Takeaways
Now, who enables mismatch-creating playmakers as well as any NFL quarterback?
Brees functions at maximum capacity when provided with a clean pocket. Like all great gunslingers, he gets the ball to his receivers downfield when the offensive line wards off hungry pass-rushers with unpleasant intentions.
Luckily, his trench protectors are some of the best. They’ve allowed just 21 sacks this season. Chalk that up to the sixth fewest in the league.
No other quarterback, however, operates with as much deadly effectiveness on deep passes as Brees does when given the time.
The Saints’ franchise leader has accumulated 743 yards and 10 scores on passes of 20 or more yards in 2013. His preposterous touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-1 also stands well above the rest.
With that aforementioned clean pocket, Brees has the full arsenal at his disposal.
He can utilize any number of forms of misdirection. Sudden double clutches, play action, pump fakes and shifty eye movement are all ways in which Brees misleads defenses and exploits them over top.
Take a look at this 69-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills against the Buffalo Bills.
Stills (No. 84) motions pre-snap left across the formation. When Brees snaps the ball, fullback Jed Collins (No. 45) moves up to the right in pass protection.
Brees then executes a play-action fake to Pierre Thomas (No. 23) running left—which takes outside backer Jerry Hughes (No. 55) out of the picture—before looking off the safety downfield on his right.
In what continues as a rapid-fire series of events, Brees uses an ever-so-subtle pump fake as Stills angles toward the sideline. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (No. 24) takes off with another receiver to the middle where Byrd and Leodis McKelvin (No. 21) are already occupied.
Stills finishes his route wide open down the numbers. Brees delivers a perfectly thrown ball to Stills in stride as he runs untouched for touchdown paydirt.
The collection of Bills secondary personnel was systematically outsmarted and outgunned by Brees. The front seven’s inability to generate pressure helped facilitate this defensive breakdown.
Let’s now move to a Jets defense that contained Brees’ greatness with a quality pass rush.
It’s second down with Brees in the shotgun and an empty backfield. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison (No. 94) maneuvers around right guard Jahri Evans and brings inside pressure from the left.
This forces Brees up in the pocket and off his spot. The 6’4’’ Muhammad Wilkerson (No. 96) further clouds Brees’ vision with his arms in the air.
Brees then throws an errant pass behind tight end Benjamin Watson (No. 82). Linebacker DeMario Davis (No. 56) hauls in the interception after Dawan Landry (No. 26) creates the initial tipped pass.
Yes, the Jets surrendered a backbreaking 116 yards and two touchdowns to the Brees-to-Graham connection. But they also broke the Saints quarterback with two sacks, two picks, 18 total pressures and a 26-20 win.
The 49ers can do the same.
Despite the Saints’ dominant overall front, left tackle Charles Brown is one of the least effective blindside protectors in all of football. He has surrendered five sacks and 35 total pressures, landing at No. 69 in Pro Football Focus’ 76 rated tackles.
Justin Smith and Aldon Smith anchor the left side of the 49ers’ pass rush. This powerful duo brings to the table a combined seven sacks and 48 quarterback pressures.
Their success at creating pressure with inside-outside stunts will overpower Brown in pass protection. The collapsing pocket will force Brees to his right where 49ers’ sack leader Ahmad Brooks and dynamic backup Corey Lemonier will be waiting.
Sacks, errant throws and interceptions can then materialize. And since the 49ers rarely blitz when rushing the passer, their full array of coverage personnel can match up with the Saints’ dangerous offensive weapons—even deep down the field.
Brees and the unrelenting machine that is the Saints’ passing offense will get theirs at home. Let’s say something to the tune of 320 yards, three touchdowns and 24 points.
The 49ers’ championship-worthy group of defenders, though, will get theirs too. Let’s give them four sacks, two takeaways and a game-ending stop in the fourth quarter.
Aldon Smith’s return to regular action will ultimately serve as the catalyst to Brees’ demise.
49er fandom can now only wait for the impending silence in the Superdome.
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