I'm more of a lurker and sometimes commentor here...long time Saints fan since the 1970's...but I felt the need to post this after reading all of the smack laid down by certain 49'ers trollers that the Saints might as well not suit up and play Saturday, because they are going to get beat down by the best run defense in the NFL combined with the home field advantage of grassy (and occasionally muddy) Candlestick Park (or whatever corporate entity it is called right now).
Indeed, by listening to some of our finest prognisticators, the Saints don't have anywhere near a chance, because they apparently are only as good as the artificial turf and enclosed managed air of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, and the second they step foot outdoors into actual green grass, they will be rendered useless against the 49er defense.
And...they are rather quick to quote the debacle in Seattle last year, where Marshawn Lynch had his rumble through the broken tackles of the entire Saints defense, or the game this year against the St. Louis Rams where Stephen Jackson ran all over the D while the offensive line broke down completely causing Drew Brees to throw INT's and Pick-6's galore.
So, why should Saturday's match up be any different?? After the jump, I'll show you why it is, and why I still think the Saints will roll the Niners.First off: the Saints can run the football this year. Oh, can they run the football this year. Wait, you say...this team has broken almost every single passing record known to mankind, yet you say that their running game is a dominant factor?? H**L TO THE YES. This is not a Run-and-Shoot team we are talking about, folks, nor is it a "pass to set up the run" team that relies only on draws and shovel passes. Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and (when he was healthy) Mark Ingram are piledrivers that can bust you in the mouth and make you pay for attempted tackles, and they are averaging a sick 5+ yards per carry...good for 7th in the league and the best running team left in the NFC playoffs. And, then there is this guy named Darren Sproles who is essentially Reggie Bush with maturity and speed to boot...
This isn't discounting the strength of the Niners' rushing D (2nd in the league in yardage, first in rushing TD's allowed, only one 100-yard rusher, only 2 rushing TD's allowed). But, the Saints are one of the few teams that can challenge the Niners' strength man for man and also play keep away when they need it. If they can generate some first downs on the ground and force the Niners to give them respect, that will more than open up things down the road for the deep passing game via playaction...and if the Niners overplay the run, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Jimmy Graham, and (perhaps, if he's healthy enough to play) Lance Moore will be running all over their secondary with impunity.
Which brings us to...:
The Saints can protect Brees this year. Yes, there have been isolated incidents when Breesus throws the inadvertent pass that gets picked (when the defenders don't have hands of stone, like the Lions), or he decides to throw into double coverage because 9 out of 10 times, Colston, Graham, or Sproles finds a way to come up with the ball and move the chains. But, for the most part, the line
quartet quintet of Jerome Bushrod, Carl Nicks, Brian de la Puente, Jahari Evans, and Zach Strief have done their job in keeping Brees' jersey clean, and the help of "H-back eligible" Pat McQuinstan and the chip blocking of Graham and Sproles have only doubled the protective blanket. Unless the Niners go to junk coverages or dial up blitzes to rush Brees, their only other chance is to simply play keep away with their offense...and that includes scoring TD's with those long, possession draining drives rather than mere FG's. They need to hold the Saints below 20 (half their average) to have any shot of winning...and even in Seattle last year and in losses to Tampa Bay and St. Louis this year, the Saints scored at least 25.
Oh, and did I mention that passing offense?? Yes, a muddy turf might slow them down, but this isn't the old "go vertical" Raiders offense of old. Sean Payton's offense relies on multiple formations and creating mismatchups where you are forced to play absolutely perfect D or get burnt slowly by the grind of chain movers. You may choose to place your best LB on Graham and spy him, and then place another spy on Sproles....but then how do you account for Colston and Henderson/Meachem and Moore working the seams?? Or, you may blitz to your heart's content...only to see PT or Ivory fly past your behinds and Jahari Evans creaming your defender on the screen pass. And then there's the threat of Jedd Collins on the dump-offs, Sproles running between the tackles, even Brees taking off and running to move the sticks...is that enough for 'ya for now, Frisco fan??
Oh, but wait again, you say, NIner Fan?? What about the Saints defense, which absolutely SUCKS so bad that they gave up big yardage numbers and darn near lost so many games??
OK, so you have a point there. Just a point. Gregg Williams' D isn't exactly the Ravens at their prime; they are capable of darn near losing plenty of games due to their not getting enough pressure on QBs even with the variety of blitzes they use, and they aren't nearly the ball hawks they were in their 2009 Super Bowl year. (The Niners, by contrast, are the league leaders in takeaway margin.) But, you don't have to be perfect when your offense is piling up 40 points a game, just stop the other guys and force punts..and of late, the Saints have been doing just that. (OK, so Calvin Johnson went off on them for a record 211 yards, but it's not as if Megatron's an average receiver that doesn't eat cornerbacks for lunch.) Not to mention, the Saints D has been pretty successful in holding down the opponent's leading weapon this year; ask Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Cam Newton, and Chris Johnson.
The 49ers basically are a slightly above average offense that complements their defense; they don't make mistakes, they control the ball, and they are patient enough to settle for field goals. In effect, they are like the Atlanta Falcons of last year, except that Matt Ryan is just a tad better than Alex Smith (that whiff last week against the Giants notwithstanding), and Roddy White and Julio Jones are much better than Michael Crabtree and Mike Ginn. Vernon Davis has been a decent TE, but probably not at the level of a Tony Gonzalez, whom the Saints handled twice.. And we all know what happened to #1 seeded Atlanta last year when Aaron Rodgers stepped into the Georgia Dome...right???
If the Saints D remains patient and is able to stuff Frank Gore into less than 100 yards rushing and keep Frisco out of the red zone, they may be able to put it all on Alex Smith's hands...and considering that ASmith only averages 190 yds/game and has been hit with 44 sacks this year, he is very much vulnerable to having a bad game. If he also decides to turn the ball over with INTs that the Saints defenders actually catch, then all the worse for Frisco.
And what about the supposed awesome 49er advantage in special teams?? Gee, don't they forget that Darren Sproles has returned punts for touchdowns, that Thomas Morestead has consistently booted touchbacks and, when actually given a chance to punt, actually finished second in net average to the NIners' All Pro Andy Lee?? Also...having kicked a record number of field goals is a nice record to have, but if that's coming at the expense of touchdowns, it's not so nice...and against the Saints, touchdowns are a necessity.
The bottom line here?? I'm not saying that the San Francisco 49ers don't have any chance to win this game, or that they won't be able to keep the game close enough to have a shot to win it at the end. 13-3 in any league is still pretty good, and home field advantage is worth more than just a passing fancy. In the end, though, a team with this many offensive weapons, with a defense that learns to absorb shots early so that they can dish them out late, and an experienced team who's learned the hard way how to properly prepare going against a good team (and coach) taking its first dip in the playoff pressure cooker since the glory days of Montana, Rice, Taylor and Lott, simply should not be discounted or dismissed so readily.
And, when you get right down to it, don't ever bet against a leader like Drew Brees.
Saints 34, 49ers 24.