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New Orleans Saints: Winning In San Fran Is A Brees When You Get Four Turnovers

Michael ErlerCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2010

Brees was his usual cool self in the face of the 49ers pass rush
Brees was his usual cool self in the face of the 49ers pass rushJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO—There’s an old Irish joke that goes something like this—bear with me.

A man returns home and cheerfully presents his wife with new earrings, a remote-controlled car for his boy and a doll for his daughter. His wife notices he’s wearing different shoes than the ones he left home with that day, a pair that look considerably nicer to boot.

Well aware that they were a simple family of meager means, she inquired where he got the money to pay for all these luxuries.

“Well dear, I was at the bar,” he began—it distressed the missus that so many of his stories started this way, but she held her tongue for now—“and one of the fellas came up with the idea of all of us putting our money into a hat and having a contest to see who had the biggest member, winner take all.”

Incredulous, the wife asked, “So you just whipped out the whole thing in front of God and country for everyone to have a gander at did you?”

“No, woman, don’t be silly,” he coolly replied. “I just pulled out enough to win.”

And this, my friends, is a roundabout way of explaining New Orleans 25, San Francisco 22.

The Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions, did just enough to win last week in their season opener versus Minnesota, and they did just enough to pull out a gutsy, back-and-forth win over the upstart and inspired 49ers.

“I think at the end of the season, the teams that are in the playoffs, the great teams that are vying for a championship are the teams that have gone through the season and won games like this,” said victorious quarterback Drew Brees afterward, knowing full well that his team will get everyone’s best effort week after week, as defending champions are wont to do.

The difference in the game—obviously—was the four turnovers the Niners committed to none by the Saints. The odds of winning an NFL game with a minus-four turnover ratio are somewhere south of the popcorn vendor going home at night with one of the cheerleaders, yet coach Mike Singletary’s charges almost found a way to pull it off.

The winning part, that is. I have no idea if any of them went home with a cheerleader and I don’t care to.

Almost immediate the Niners were in a 9-0 hole, thanks to an awry shotgun snap by fill-in center David Baas that looked more a pop-up to shortstop. Quarterback Alex Smith smartly slapped the ball behind the end zone for a safety, but New Orleans capitalized on the excellent field position from the ensuing free kick and Brees dinked and dunked his way down the field in seven plays, culminating in a six-yard touchdown to Reggie Bush.

On their first drive of consequence Smith sensed trouble coming from his right in the form of a corner blitz and winged a pass to his left to his main weapon, running back Frank Gore, explaining later that he purposefully threw it to his outside shoulder—towards the sidelines—so that, in Smith’s words, it would go to “him or nobody."

However, for one of the few times on the night, Smith was wrong. Gore’s futile lunge for the wayward pass wound up deflecting the ball straight up in the air, where safety Roman Harper easily scooped it up for the first turnover.

The 49ers finally scored their first touchdown of the 2010 season 5:08 into the second quarter of their second game, on the 12th play of an 82-yard drive that featured plenty of Gore running and receiving – he outraced his high school and collegiate teammate, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, on a 12-yard swing pass to the right pylon to make it a 9-7 game.

Vilma would find redemption on the next series, when he punched the ball away from 49ers tight end Delanie Walker—who was carrying it far too loosely—just when San Francisco looked poised to take a lead into the half. That was turnover number two.

After Smith connected with an otherwise quiet Michael Crabtree on a 32-yard skinny post and a 41-yard bomb down the left sideline to Vernon Davis, they hit paydirt with three short runs and had what would turn out to be their only lead of the night.

Brees, who was flummoxed most of the first half by a defense that was able to deny both the running game and his deep threats, quickened his pace, took advantage of a roughing-the-passer penalty to Niners defensive end Ray McDonald and an offsides by linebacker Ahmad Brooks and found tight end David Thomas on a three-yard slant to recapture the lead for good at 16-14.

After the lead was increased to 19-14, thanks to an impressive 46-yard field goal by Saints kicker Garrett Hartley into the Candlestick wind, the 49ers were again racking up the yards at an impressive clip and looked poised to retake the lead. However, linebacker Jo-Lunn Dunbar got his hand on Smith’s attempted slant to Crabtree and again a Saints defender—in this case corner Tracy Porter–was Johnny on-the-spot.

Turnover No. 3, if you’re keeping score.

Finally, rookie corner Phillip Adams, who was pressed into duty as the punt returner because the first two options, receivers Ted Ginn (knee) and Kyle Williams (toe) were out injured, muffed a punt he had no business being around. Somehow the ball, which looked for all the world like it was headed out of bounds, bounced back into the field of play for Saints receiver Courtney Roby to fall on.

Turnover number four, and what looked very much like the back-breaker. Kudos to the 49ers defense for the goal line stand they put up, holding the Saints to another chip shot field goal.

Down 22-14 with 2:08 to go, Smith showed tremendous character in leading his team all the way down the field to tie the game on a seven-yard draw by Gore and a two-point conversion by Davis, who was initially was ruled down short of the end zone before replays confirmed he did indeed catch the ball behind the goal line before being pushed forward.

Though his stat line (23-of-32, for 275 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, 82.2 QB rating) didn’t look that great, Smith had stretches of absolute brilliance against the Saints, completing 14 of 15 passes at one point. Those back-to-back rockets to Crabtree and Davis in the third quarter were as fine as any throws by any quarterback all weekend. He even showed athleticism in that last drive, with a pair of 12-yard scrambles.

He looked, at times, how a guy drafted first overall should look.

The only problem was that even when Smith and the 49ers do everything right, they still get it wrong. They were able to go out of bounds to stop the clock on all five of their successful plays prior to Gore’s scamper, and while that is exactly what you want to be doing in that situation, the result was an eight play, 82-yard drive that took up only 53 seconds.

That left 1:19 for Brees.

An eternity.

Understand that up to that point Brees appeared to be having a very average game for him. After all, the Niners defense had forced six punts and two other possessions where the Saints could only manage a field goal despite starting with excellent field position. It really looked like they caught Brees in an off-night.

Then you look at the box score and you see the guy finished 28-of-38 for 254 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers, and a QB rating of 108.9. Heck, for Brees, that is an off-night.

Forty-niners defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s scheme was brilliant, in that he had no scheme. Knowing full well that it’s darn near impossible to fool a guy like Brees with some exotic blitz, Manusky instead went the other way and installed a game plan that was more basic and vanilla than you’ll see in the average preseason game.

He simply rushed four, dropped seven back into coverage and dared Brees to throw deep. It was exactly the same tactic the New York Giants used to stymie Tom Brady and the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl two seasons ago and the key to making it work is creating pressure with just your front line.

Brees, however, never took the bait or fell for the trap. He merrily took what the defense gave him and 20 of his 28 completions went to his backs or tight ends (well, actually 19 did, since he caught one of his own passes on a deflection). He counted on his guys to break tackles and waited patiently for the Niners to make a mistake in coverage. He didn’t blink first.

The mistake finally came with 43 seconds to go. Somehow, his big play receiver, Marques Colston, was one-on-one down the seam with Niners free safety Dashon Goldson. Goldson’s a good player, but that’s a bad match-up for him. A 30-yard completion, ten yards longer than any of the 26 that preceded it, set up the Saints for Hartley’s 37-yard game-winner at the gun.

Even though McDonald got a fingertip or two on the ball, Hartley had just enough umph on it to get it over the crossbar. The length it cleared by?

Well, it would’ve been enough to win a bar bet.

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