San Francisco 49ers: Ten Things To Watch For Against The New Orleans Saints

Dan MoriCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2010

San Francisco 49ers: Ten Things To Watch For Against The New Orleans Saints

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    Mike Singletary Hopes To Get The 49ers On The Right TrackOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers played very poorly in their season opener against Seattle.  After dominating the first quarter and much of the second quarter, the Niners imploded and did very little right for the remainder of the game.  The end result was a 31-6 defeat against a division rival.

    The 49ers must now face the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.  New Orleans defeated the Minnesota Vikings 14-9 in their season opener, as the Saints held Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson in check. 

    I have isolated ten things to watch for in this game.  How the 49ers address these items will hold the key to their success.

10. It's Monday Night Football, How Will The 49ers Handle It?

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    The Pomp And Circumstance Of Monday NightEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    All eyes will be on the 49ers and Saints, this coming Monday night.  The 49ers will be playing at home, and they will have a loud raucous crowd cheering them on.

    How will the Niners handle the big stage? 

    We already know New Orleans can handle this type of environment, as they proved during the playoffs and Super Bowl, last season.  The Saints were also in the national spotlight just this past Thursday for the NFL season opener.

    The full gala type atmosphere with all the pomp and circumstance of Monday Night Football will be in evidence for this game.  In addition, it's the 49ers home opener, after coming off a dismal defeat last Sunday.

    Make no mistake, I'm sure the 49ers will be fired up for this game.  However, there is a fine line between positive emotion and overly emotional.  If the Niner players are over aggressive, or try to do too much, mistakes will occur and the Saints will exploit them.

    The 49ers must channel their emotion into a positive focus for this game, without being overly hyped up.

    How they handle the scene will play a big part in the outcome of this game.

9. Will The 49er Offense Come Up With Some Innovative Play Calling?

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    San Francisco Offensive Coordinator, Jimmy RayeNFL Photos/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and quarterback Alex Smith had major difficulties in the opening game, against Seattle. 

    There was confusion and communication problems in getting the plays relayed in from Raye to Smith.  However, the problems went far beyond just that issue.

    The 49er play calling was largely unimaginative and did not give Seattle enough different looks.   A prime example is that former Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook did not even get into the game. 

    Frank Gore was being bottled up and was unable to generate anything on the ground.  Westbrook gives the 49ers a different look, and is also a better receiver than Gore.  Westbrook was signed to spell Frank Gore and provide a breakaway threat out of the backfield.

    Jimmy Raye continued to try the same formula which did work in the first quarter and half of the second quarter, but it became very obvious it was not working in the third and fourth quarters.  The lack of flexibility was appalling.

    In the second half of the Seattle game, the 49ers showed an inability to adapt to a defense that was clearly stacked up to stop Frank Gore on the ground and cover the short passing game.  Jimmy Raye simply called vanilla plays that were easily defended by the Seahawk defenders.

    One other important point, the New Orleans defense is far superior than the Seattle defense.

8. Can The 49ers Get Frank Gore Rolling?

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    Frank Gore Needs A Big Game Against The SaintsOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49er offensive line was unable to open any holes for Frank Gore.  He rushed 17 times for only 38 yards, against Seattle.

    If Frank Gore is unable to make an impact against the New Orleans defense, it will force Alex Smith into obvious passing downs, and that will not bode well for the 49ers.

    The offensive line had problems with the loud and hostile crowd noise in Seattle, but that will not be an issue at Candlestick Park.  The line will have a better chance to fire off the ball and give Gore some running lanes.

    If Frank Gore is successful, the 49ers can control the ball and the clock.  Keeping the ball away from the Saints offense will be an important key for the 49ers.  However, if Frank Gore has another lackluster outing, the 49ers will be hard pressed to win this game. 

7. Can The 49ers Penetrate The New Orleans Defense?

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    A Swarming Saint Defense Is Tough To Score AgainstChris Graythen/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints are best known for Drew Brees and their offensive fireworks.  However, it would be foolish to sell the Saint defense short.

    The Minnesota Vikings, with Brett Favre at the helm, have a stronger offense than the 49ers.  The Saints held the Vikings to only nine points.

    Minnesota gained only 253 total yards.  On the ground, the Vikings ran for 91 yards and had only 162 net yards through the air.  Led by Jonathan Vilma, the Saints defense is fast and tough.

    For the 49ers to have any chance at all, they will need to keep the Saint defense off balance with a creative and well executed offensive game plan. 

6. How Will The 49ers Handle The New Orleans Blitzing Defense?

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    The Saint Defense Will Apply PressureChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Against Brett Favre and the Vikings, we saw plenty of blitzing from the New Orleans defense. 

    Although the Saints only recorded one sack, they pressured Favre and forced him to throw much earlier than he wanted to.  Holding Brett Favre to only 162 net passing yards is a very good accomplishment. 

    Expect New Orleans to come with several different blitz packages and try to disrupt Alex Smith.  The 49er offensive line and running backs must be prepared to handle the pressure that New Orleans will bring.

    If the Niners are able to handle the Saints' blitz, then it will give the 49ers opportunities to make some big plays down the field.  If the Saints, however, are able to harass Alex Smith, we can expect more rushed throws and interceptions.

5. Can The 49ers Contain Reggie Bush?

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    Reggie Bush Is Always DangerousRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Reggie Bush has given back his Heisman Trophy, but that in no way diminishes his role with the New Orleans Saints.  The 49ers must contain Reggie Bush, as he is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the football.

    Reggie Bush has four punt returns for touchdowns in his NFL career.  49er punter, Andy Lee, must be effective and give his punt coverage unit time to get up on the dangerous return man. 

    New Orleans also uses Bush very effectively out of the backfield as a receiver.  In fact, he has more career yards receiving than he does rushing.  The Saints like to get him out in open space, where his speed and elusiveness can best be utilized.

    The 49ers will need to focus on sure tackling, as any missed tackles will give Bush the opportunity to score from anywhere on the field.  If Reggie Bush breaks a couple of long gainers, it will be a long night for the 49ers.

4. Will The 49er Defensive Backs Play With Discipline?

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    Nate Clements Picks One Off Against SeattleOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Very early in the Seattle game, Nate Clements intercepted Matt Hasselbeck.  This, however, was a double-edged sword.  Throughout the game, Clements was peering in to the quarterback, looking for a read, in order to get more interceptions.

    This gambling approach backfired as Hasselbeck twice faked Clements, then beat him deep for two huge pass plays.  These two plays got the Seahawk offense jump started and led to Seattle's two first half touchdowns.  The Niners would never recover.

    On the second of the two plays, both Nate Clements and Tarell Brown bit up on the same move, and watched as Deon Butler sailed by them for an easy touchdown reception.

    The over aggressive play by the 49er defensive secondary cost them big time.  Don't think for an instant that Drew Brees and the Saints will not try to exploit this tendency.

    The 49er defensive backs must play aggressively, but not to the point of being over aggressive and making huge mistakes.  This tendency showed a lack of discipline, as the 49er defensive backs lost the concept of team defense and individually were trying to make big plays.  As we saw, this cost them dearly.

    Head coach Mike Singletary spoke about attention to detail in his post game press conference.  A lot of that point is aimed directly at the defensive backfield.

    The Saint passing attack is far superior to Seattle and the Niner defensive backs must have the discipline to play their positions properly, or they will get burned.



3. Will The 49er Offense Be Efficient?

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    Vernon Davis Led The 49er Receivers Against SeattleOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49er offense started the Seattle game in a great rhythm.  Then they lost it and could never regain any semblance of offensive consistency.

    The 49er offense was deep into Seattle territory on three separate occasions, in the first half of their game last week.  With an opportunity to score 21 points, the Niners could only get six.

    If San Francisco was able to get 17 or even 13 points on those three opportunities, that may have been too much for Seattle. 

    By only coming away with six points, the Niners let Seattle stay in the game.  Then, once Seattle got going, the Niners were unable to stop their momentum, resulting in a horrible 31-6 loss for the 49ers.

    In addition to the red zone failures, the 49ers were only 1-15 on third down conversions.  That is pathetic.  The blame for this goes throughout the entire offense.

    The offensive line was unable to open running lanes for Frank Gore, which resulted in several third and long situations.  In addition, the line did not handle the crowd noise in Seattle well at all.  Not only were they unable to really fire off the ball, but false start penalties also put the offense in a hole.

    Michael Crabtree and Alex Smith were out of sync during the entire game.  I attribute this largely to the fact that Crabtree did not appear in any preseason games.  I believe this issue was a factor behind both Seattle interceptions, which they turned into two touchdowns. 

    Michael Crabtree seems to think he is too good for preseason games, but skipping those games definitely had a negative affect on his timing with Alex Smith. 

    Then we have the poor communication between Jimmy Raye and Alex Smith, which has been discussed at length.  Coupled with a lack of imagination in the play calling, and I can confidently say that the 49ers were out coached.

    Alex Smith was also inaccurate and missed receivers when they were open.  One poor throw to Moran Norris cost the 49ers a touchdown early in the game.  Smith also missed an open Michael Crabtree, which would have been a big gainer.

    Poor execution across the board was the reason that the 49ers could only muster two field goals against the Seahawks.  They Niner offense must play a lot better against the Saints, or they could be blown out.

2. Can The 49ers Stop Drew Brees?

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    Quarterback Drew Brees Leads The SaintsRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Drew Brees is in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks.  He is smart, accurate and runs an aggressive, attacking offense.  The San Francisco 49er defense will be hard pressed to contain the Saint passing attack. 

    I think the 49er defense will do a good job against the run, which is the strength of the Niner defense.  How they handle the passing game of New Orleans, however, will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game.

    Brees is also very difficult to blitz because he has a great command of the offense and can get the ball away quickly.  The Niners do need to blitz, in order to make Brees hurry his throws, but when they do, they better get there.

    Against the Vikings, Brees completed 27 or 36 passes for 237 yards.  His quarterback rating was 101.3.  Brees also connected with nine different receivers.  This diversity makes it impossible for any defense to just key on one or two players.

    New Orleans does not have the one great pass catching threat, like a Larry Fitzgerald or Brandon Marshall.  However, they have several very competent wide receivers.  Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore can all hurt you. 

    If you minimize the effectiveness of the wideouts, you still need to stop tight end Jeremy Shockey, a former Pro Bowler.

    If you somehow contain these players, you still have to deal with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.

    Finding a way to slow down Drew Brees and the vaunted New Orleans offense will be a huge test for the 49er defense.  We'll see if they're up to the challenge.


1. Will Alex Smith Step Up?

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    49er Quarterback Alex Smith Needs To Have A Big GameOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49er coaching staff and even the players praised Alex Smith in training camp.  They all commented on his improved command of the offense and his strong leadership skills.

    Head coach Mike Singletary named Alex Smith a team captain heading into the season. Everything was rosy and looking great.

    Then came the Seattle game.  Smith played poorly and lost all the positive vibe that had taken months to build up.  The nagging questions about Smith's accuracy and leadership were again at the forefront of any conversations involving the 49ers.

    Alex Smith started the Seattle game on a roll, completing 9-of-10 passes.  Then the roof caved in.  Smith threw one interception and from that point on, he looked uncertain and out of his comfort zone.

    When Smith and Michael Crabtree failed to hook up again at the start of the second half, resulting in another interception and Seattle touchdown, things got even worse.  Smith was largely indecisive and inaccurate for the remainder of the game.

    There were several times when Smith had open running lanes and could have picked up positive yardage, but he hesitated, then chose to fire the ball into traffic, resulting in more incomplete passes. 

    Smith also missed a wide open Michael Crabtree for what would have been a big play and could have turned the momentum back to the 49ers.

    The hardest thing to watch was the supposed leadership skills that Smith had developed.  This was not evident in the second half at all.  Smith was repeatedly flustered by the communication issues we discussed earlier.

    This is the time a good quarterback takes it upon himself to make a play call and execute it.  Smith did none of that.  He was woefully unable to do anything to turn the momentum back to the 49ers, once they lost it.

    The San Francisco 49ers are counting on Alex Smith to lead them.  He gets another chance this Monday against the Super Bowl champions.  How Smith does against the Saints will go a long way to showing us his character and mental toughness.

    Alex Smith must be accurate with his throws and show the leadership necessary to lead the 49er offense.  We shall see how Smith responds to this adversity.

NFL Monday Night Football: Game On!

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    Patrick Willis Leads The 49er DefenseJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The world champion New Orleans Saints are coming to town.  The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a humbling 31-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

    I figured the 49ers would have a record of 1-1 after this upcoming game, however, I had them beating Seattle.  Now, they need to turn that around and beat a very good New Orleans team, if they hope to even their record.

    The 49ers have so many questions, as I noted in this article.  They will need to answer all of them well, in order to have a chance against the Saints.

    Do I think they will?  Unfortunately, no.  This is why the loss to Seattle was so difficult to take. 

    An 0-2 start to the season will put even more pressure on Mike Singletary and Alex Smith, as they try to get the 49ers on the right track. 

    If San Francisco can somehow win this game, then their opening game debacle will be forgiven.

    This promises to be a very interesting game and an extremely tough test for the 49ers.  We'll see if they rise to the occasion.  I can hardly wait till Monday night!