This week the Saints travel west to take on the San Francisco 49ers in a divisional playoff game. The Saints took care of business last week dispatching of the Lions while the 49ers had the week off to heal up and watch their potential opponent battle it out for a chance to play them. It has been a surprising season to say the least as the 49ers were welcoming in a new coach this season in Jim Harbaugh. Coach Harbaugh who came in with an easy schedule turned the culture around as his team won 13 games and clinched a first round bye. The 49ers are a team that wants to wear you down on both sides of the ball as they are a ground control team on offense and a pressure sideline to sideline defense that gets after the quarterback. I look at this game and one of two things will happen: either the 49ers will win this game in a low scoring affair or the Saints will win big by exposing the 49ers who really haven’t had to face a team that has been clicking on all cylinders such as the Saints have been doing the last couple of games. It should be a good matchup as the winner will be one step closer to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers’ special teams are one of the league’s best as they have both their punter and kicker representing them in the Pro Bowl. They also have one of the best returners in the game as Ted Ginn Jr. has returned kicks for touchdowns in both the kickoff and punting game. This unit will be one of the best units the Saints have faced this year and will have some input on the outcome of the game as one quick score can turn the game around. It’s defense is a big reason for the turnaround this year as they are number four in league in total defense. Getting back to the pro bowl players, the 49ers have four players representing the defense as they have one for each unit. The 49ers run a 3-4 defense and they also have one of the best front sevens in all of football as they stop the run and get after the quarterback better than any other defense the Saints have faced. Justin Smith leads the defensive line with seven and half sacks but most of the quarterback sacks have come from the outside linebackers position with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks having twenty one combined sacks. The 49ers face of the defense has been Patrick Willis the last couple of years but with Willis out three games this season he finished behind NaVorro Bowman in the tackle department but these two will be all over the field on Saturday causing havoc for the Saints’ offense. With two guys representing them at the pro bowl in the secondary you would think they would have a better secondary but they are a middle of the pack unit.
How to take advantage?
It is pretty simple as the Saints will get most of their points through the air this game as the run game will be out of commission. While the running yards will be hard to come by, the Saints should deploy more screens and quick passes to offset the aggressive pass rush the 49ers will bring Saturday. I also think that Jimmy Graham will have a big game as looking up and down the 49ers roster I don’t really see a guy who can cover him one on one. Look for a hit at the line of scrimmage from one of the linebackers and then it will be underneath and over coverage trying to keep Graham in check. It will be important to win the turnover and penalty battle as the Saints have been known to play out of character on the road this season. I think the team knows what is at stake this game and will play lights out.
The 49ers are a run based offense with a game manger in Alex Smith at quarterback. Smith has always been the scapegoat in previous seasons from the 49ers fans as he could not get the job done but this season while he has not been a great quarterback he does what is needed to get the wins. The receiving core while not a flashy unit has playmakers in Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr. and Vernon Davis to make plays down field. Out of these three the one that worries me is Davis as the Saints will likely put Roman Harper to cover him, a huge mismatch in the 49ers’ favor. If you have a good running game the two obvious things you need is a good running back with a good offensive line and the 49ers have both. The 49ers have a great back in Frank Gore but they also have a good backup in Kendall Hunter as he has been getting more and more carries the last couple of weeks letting Gore get his legs back for the playoffs. I like the 49ers’ offensive line as most of them are high draft picks with the 49ers loading up the last couple of years and adding a couple of key free agents this line has become one of the league’s most underrated this season.
How to take advantage?
The main objective is stopping the 49ers’ ground game and dare Alex Smith to beat you with his arm. I know these two teams met in the preseason and the Saints exposed the 49ers by blitzing them every chance they got but things will be different this time around. That preseason game helped the 49ers with their blitz pickup going forward and that is why I think the Saints will play a little more zone while mixing up the blitz in this game. The other problem with playing a running team is they will lull you to sleep and then bam they will hit you over the top with a long pass. It is all up to the Saints’ offense, get up by 14 will eliminate the threat of the 49ers running the ball as they will have to make it a shootout and I would like the chances of the Saints winning a shootout.