There’s a lot of talk out there about the Saints’ upcoming game against San Francisco being a Drew-Brees. I don’t know why people have consistently degraded the 49ers’ surprising success this season, but it needs to end here. The game on Saturday may not be a walk in the (Candlestick) park, and here’s why:
- It’s no fluke: the Niners are 13-3 for a reason.
Let’s start by debunking the myth that the 49ers have had an easy schedule this season. That belief is false. The 49ers have beaten the same amount of playoff teams (4) as the Saints have this season. In fact, the Saints have only beaten three teams with winning records in the NFC. We beat the Falcons, Giants and Lions. The 49ers have beaten all those teams as well. And unlike the Saints, the Niners have not lost to a team with a losing record this season. The Saints lost to the 4-12 Buccaneers and the 2-14 Rams. The 49ers trounced Tampa Bay 48-3, and beat the Rams twice, outscoring them 60-27 in the two games. Therefore, to blame the 49ers 13-3 record on an easy schedule is simply inaccurate. The Niners have a conservative, smash-mouth power-running offense that doesn’t make mistakes and wears defenses out. It’s old-school, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked. They have the league’s best defense. They are extremely strong up front; it’s nearly impossible to run against them. They have the best kicker and punter in the NFL this season, and they are a scrappy team that has given opposing teams fits. The proof of this lies within the main reason the 49ers are 13-3, and that’s turnovers. The Niners’ league-leading +28 turnover margin is an incredible 31-turnover difference over the Saints’ -3 margin.
2. The Saints struggle on the road
The Saints offense is explosive and record-breaking at home. However, it’s been a different story on the road. We’ve only averaged 24 points per game on the road as opposed to an incredible 41 in the dome. Drew Brees has had 3 poor outings bad teams. He had a 1 TD, 2 INT day at Jacksonville, a 1 TD, 3 INT day at Tampa Bay, and a 1 TD, 2 INT day at St. Louis. All three days, he had a quarterback rating below 82 (the league average). These games are ultimately going to prevent Brees from winning MVP over Aaron Rodgers, but the point is that the offense hasn’t been unstoppable on the road this season. While the Saints are undefeated at home, we are merely 5-3 on the road. Meanwhile, the 49ers are undefeated in regulation at home. They are also well rested, coming off a BYE week. The Saints are 0-4 in career road playoff games, as in: we’ve never won a road playoff game in franchise history. And this will be the 49ers first home playoff game in over a decade, so the atmosphere will be similar to Seattle last season. Speaking of atmosphere, there’s a very good chance that San Francisco will be very chilly and windy on Saturday. This would not bode well for our passing game, and un-ideal conditions would certainly play into the 49ers’ strengths. We cannot ignore the importance of home field advantage in the playoffs. Home playoff teams are 4-0 this season already. Since 1990, home teams are 61-23 in the divisional round. Teams routinely struggle with cross-country west coast road trips, and this will be no different. Recall that the Saints lost to the worst playoff team in NFL history last season after a similar trip, proving that often, even vastly superior teams struggle with similar road trips, and proving that it can happen to our beloved Saints.
3. There is a blue print to beating New Orleans
As I mentioned before, two of the Saints’ losses this year were extremely ugly. I’m going to focus in on 21-31 loss to the St. Louis Rams, who finished the season with a pathetic 2-14 record. How did the lowly Rams beat us? Offensively, they ran the ball up our throats relentlessly with Steven Jackson. Make no mistake about it: the Saints’ biggest weakness is our linebackers. According to ProFootballFocus.com, a website that grades all performance aspects of individual players with one positive or negative number, the Saints have the 2nd worst linebacking crew in the NFL this year by a wide margin. Scott Shanle (-13.8), JoLonn Dunbar (-27.1), Jonathan Vilma (-17) and Jonathan Casillas (-11.1) have all had terrible seasons. The Rams exposed this weakness by running Steven Jackson 29 times for 159 yards. It was a helpless feeling knowing that the Rams were going to run, but STILL not being able to do anything to stop it. The strong running game was mixed with short conservative passes in the middle of the field, which also exposed the linebackers’ tackling issues. The Saints couldn’t pressure the quarterback regardless of how much we blitzed, and the Rams churned out long tiring drives all day. Even though the play-calling was extremely predictable, we couldn’t do anything to stop them. Their constant runs and short passes kept the clock running, Brees off the field and our defense tired.
Defensively, the Rams got pressure with their talented front four and dropped everyone back in coverage. They kept their safeties deep, and they weren’t beaten deep all game. They allowed Brees to have the underneath throws but tackled well, which also kept the clock running. The Rams pressure did not allow Brees enough time to pick apart the Rams, and the Rams held the Saints offense to just 14 points. What’s more impressive is that 7 of those points came on meaningless garbage drive in the final minute when the game was already out of hand. Do not forget that game, and do not believe that the Saints offense is unstoppable on the road, because the truth of the matter is that it has been shut down before…by a much worse team than the 49ers.
4. If we don’t get an early lead, the 49ers match up very well against the Saints
Alike the Saints, the Niners have had a strong formula for success that they haven’t strayed from all season. However, their methods couldn’t be more opposite. The 49ers use their gritty, beefy offensive line to pound the ball consistently all game, often replacing potential play makers with extra blockers to grind out more yardage. Since their quarterback, Alex Smith, is limited in terms of accuracy, the Niners have relied on long clock-numbing drives that wear defenses out over the course of the game. A lot of Saints fans are going to look at this match up and say that there is no way that Alex Smith can keep up with Drew Brees. The Niners know this, so they aren’t going to even attempt. That’s not their game plan. But don’t discredit the season that Smith is having. His TD/INT ratio is 17-5, and he boasts a quarterback rating of 90. He’s a different player than years past, and Jim Harbaugh’s offense simply doesn’t put him in position to make mistakes. Remember that helpless feeling against the Rams when we knew the Rams were going to run it with Steven Jackson and STILL couldn’t stop it? That’s what the 49ers do offensively, but they have more playmakers. With Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and emerging Michael Crabtree, it won’t be as easy to stop the 49ers as one would imagine. A lot of people say that the 49ers offense stinks, but what makes you think we’ll stop them? Who have we stopped this season without a 14 point lead?
The 49ers also have the league’s best defense. They are extremely strong up front, Justin Smith, Pat Willis and Navarro Bowman have helped lead the Niners to the #1 run defense. They can get to the passer as well. Aldon Smith is on the verge of stardom, and he will be very difficult for the Saints to block. Don’t forget that Drew Brees has struggled more against 3-4 defenses throughout his career. The 49ers have tackled better than any team this season, and most of the big plays their defense has allowed have been on blown coverage assignments. We may get frustrated at their ability to tackle short of the sticks on the underneath routes, just as the Rams did against us. This causes a problem for offensive coordinators because they become impatient and try to throw deep. The amount of time it takes to do this is what has caused the Niners to pressure and create so many turnovers. This was a huge problem against the Rams and I hope the Saints have learned since.
The Bottom Line:
The Saints are not invincible against any team on the road. The 21-31 loss to the 2-14 St. Louis Rams is the blue-print of how to beat the Saints. You have to pound the ball and call short conservative passes, exposing the weak the linebackers, keeping the clock running all game. You also have to pressure Brees and drop the safeties, allowing the underneath throws. It’s obviously easier said than done, but the 49ers are built in a way that matches up well with the Saints.
There’s no question the Saints are more talented the 49ers, and there’s also no debate on whether we’d beat them in the Super Dome (we would destroy them), and I’m not even attempting to proclaim that the 49ers have a chance at winning this year’s Super Bowl. (In my opinion, the only three teams that CAN win a Super Bowl this year are the Saints, Packers and Giants). Even with that said, if we win I’m going to feel much more confident playing New York in the dome for the NFC Championship game than traveling to San Francisco. There are a lot other things going against the Saints in this game. It will be even more important than ever to get an early lead Saturday so we can limit their running game, thus taking them out of their element. If we get an early lead, this column will be pointless, because we will handle them easily. They are not built to play catch up. If not, San Francisco won’t be a push over by any means. I’d rather play any team in the NFL (including the Packers) at home than play the 49ers on the road. Don’t be an ignorant and bias fan. Give the 49ers their props, and prepare for a great game and good test on Saturday.
Categories: The WHODAT GUIDE