SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 20: Pierre Thomas #23 of the New Orleans Saints runs against the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL game at Candlestick Park on September 20 2010 in San Francisco California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
To help pass the time and quench your thirst for non-stop Saints vs. Niners coverage, we've got a little question and answer series to share with the opposition's SB Nation blogger as we get closer to kickoff this Divisional weekend.
Like last week we've got another classy blogger from an equally classy blog, David Fucillo from SB Nation's Niners Nation, to help us learn more. Make the jump to read David's answers to my questions and check out Niners Nation for my answers to his.
I'd like to thank David from taking time to answer my questions.
Dave Cariello: A big deal is being made about the field in San Francisco as if the Saints have never played there. What's different or unique about the grass at Candlestick that should be cause for concern?
David Fucillo: The grass versus turf issue has become a common refrain among 49ers fans as one of the reasons the 49ers can beat the Saints. I think the primary reason it has been brought up is because of the statistical difference in the Saints performance outdoors versus indoors. The Saints are a good team no matter what, but there does seem to be a noticeable difference when they are out in the elements.
As for the grass at Candlestick, the field itself is technically below sea level and even with a forecast of 60 and sunny this weekend, the field itself will retain a certain measure of moisture. I don't know if the groundskeepers will let the sprinklers run a little long, but it will not be nearly as firm as the turf at the Superdome. Maybe it will make a difference, maybe it won't, but given the numbers 49ers fans do consider it notable.
Dave C: What do you think will be the most important matchup in this game?
David F: I think there are three notable matchups worth some discussion. The first is Aldon Smith versus Jermon Bushrod (and any double teams the Saints use). Aldon is a co-favorite with Von Miller for Defensive Rookie of the Year after finishing the season with 14 sacks. Aldon (too many Smiths on the 49ers!) played primarily out of the team's nickel defense and given the Saints passing tendencies, you can expect to see a lot of Aldon. The 49ers need to get pressure on Brees to slow down the Saints passing attack and Aldon is as much a part of that as anybody.
The second is Patrick Willis & Co. versus Jimmy Graham. The Saints have numerous weapons, but Jimmy Graham is arguably the most complete threat in that group. Patrick Willis will draw the primary coverage assignment while FS Dashon Goldson and SS Donte Whitner will also lend a hand at times. Graham is a monster of a man and this could be one of the most intriguing matchups of the entire postseason. Graham and Willis are both athletic beasts and even though I want to see the 49ers pound the Saints, I also love seeing matchups like this that test just how great Patrick Willis can be.
The third "matchup" will be Greg Roman and the offensive line against Gregg Williams the Saints pass rush. The Saints blew up the 49ers in the preseason with an overload of blitzes. The 49ers struggled in large part because they really weren't sufficiently prepared for it. The offensive line has had time to gel and will be game-planning around Gregg Williams' blitzing schemes.
Dave C: How did Alex Smith finally turn the corner this year? Does he have the ability to win this game by himself if needed?
David F: The 2011 version of Alex Smith has been an intriguing player to watch. The 49ers have basically implemented a brand new offense on the fly this season, so it is still operating with plenty of hiccups along the way. Smith has hit career highs in almost every passing category and yet some folks would argue he really isn't that different a QB than in years' past.
I think the big difference is the confidence Jim Harbaugh has instilled in him. Since he first met with Smith after he was hired to as recently as last week, Coach Harbaugh has nothing but positive things to say about Alex Smith. At times the man-crush can be amusingly awkward, but Smith is in the best position he has ever been in with the 49ers. He has had solid weapons in recent years, but he's always had defensive head coaches that have thrown him under the bus at the first sign of trouble. Coach Harbaugh has had his back from day one. It is a bit cliched and doesn't point to specific skill improvement or statistical differences. But this is an instance where confidence has been the key.
Can he win the game by himself? I think to a certain extent he can make quite a few plays, but I also don't think the 49ers are built for Alex Smith to be needing to throw for 300+ yards and four touchdowns. If the 49ers need that from Smith, their defense has failed them and they probably aren't going to win the game. Alex Smith can make plays and the Giants game is an example where the team put more of the game-plan in Smith's hands. I don't know if he will ever be a consistent 300+ yard, 3-4 TD threat, and I'm fine with that because that is not the nature of the game plan. The team is built around a great defense and special teams unit looking to give the 49ers the advantage in field position and make life easier on the offense.
Dave C: If you could pluck one player from the Saints roster (other than Drew) and put him on the Niners, who would it be and why?
David F: I'd have to say Jimmy Graham. This is not a knock on the 49ers current tight ends, but I have no problem adding a dominant tight end into the mix. Vernon Davis is a play-maker and Delanie Walker is as versatile as the come, playing TE, WR, fullback and h-back all in the same game. However, in part due to Walker likely missing this weekend's game, I wouldn't mind seeing Graham in a 49ers uniform.
The 49ers offense utilizes the tight ends in a variety of ways and uses a two tight end base for the most part. Although the 49ers will likely be short Walker on Saturday, you'll still see a mix of heavy lineups featuring multiple tight ends, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga helping out as a fullback and other such mixes. The 49ers can pass from such sets, which make them all the more dangerous. Adding in Jimmy Graham would make that unit go from great to ridiculous.
Dave C: Complete this sentence: Every time the 49ers _________ I want to gouge my eyes out with a dull, rusty spoon.
David F: "run on 3rd and long inside the opponents' red zone" - They don't do this all the time, but there were a couple instances of that in Week 16 that drove me crazy. The 49ers had some issues in the red zone for much of the season, but over the final three weeks they started to get it together, scoring six touchdowns in nine trips. The 49ers will need to take full advantage of any red zone opportunities to make this a manageable game.
Dave C: Care to make a quick prediction?
David F: 49ers 27 - Saints 23
Aside from the 49ers winning a huge shootout, there are few results that would surprise me in this game. I never pick my 49ers to lose so don't be stunned by my prediction of a 49ers win. The 49ers could very well give up a ton of yards to the Saints offense, but if they can keep them out of the end zone they can win this game. Shocking, I know. The 49ers have given up plenty of yards to solid quarterbacks this season, but they've won because they have clamped down in the red zone. If the 49ers can keep the Saints from scoring the long TDs and shut them down in the red zone, they can win this game.