49ers vs. Saints preview: Sack differential matters

Thearon W. Henderson

As the 49ers face the Saints they'll need to be on the right side of the sack differential by pressuring Drew Brees while keeping their own QB clean.

With the 49ers coming off a thorough drubbing of the Chicago Bears under the lights of Monday Night Football, many will want to talk about Colin Kaepernick's dominant performance in relief of Alex Smith, and whether or not it means there's a QB controversy in San Francisco. While this is a pertinent topic, in looking ahead to the next game on the schedule, I think there's more to consider than simply WHO will be playing QB.

Part of the impressive display put-on by Kaepernick was the fact that he didn't turn the ball over. Nary an interception or a fumble, largely due to the fact that he was only sacked twice in the game despite the 49ers defense getting Jason Campbell to the turf six times. Pressure on the quarterback is key, especially for the 49ers, it seems.

In looking back over the past four games, the two biggest margins of victory came when the 49ers were even or ahead in sack differential - that is - they sacked the opposing QB as many or more times as they allowed their own guy to be sacked.

As mentioned, in the game vs. the Bears the 49ers were +4 in sack differential. Against the Arizona Cardinals they were even, allowing four sacks and giving-up four of their own. In the tie-game against the Rams, the 49ers were -3 in sack differential. They were even with the Seahawks in a closely fought victory that ended in a 13-6 score.

Facing Drew Brees in the Super Dome, with it's raucous crowd and "feel-good", come-back atmosphere will be a huge test for both of the 49ers fronts. The noise can wreak havoc on visiting offensive lines and the Saints have always liked to get after the quarterback, even if Gregg Williams has left the building.

On the defensive side, the 49ers will look to continue the momentum generated in the six-sack outing against the Bears. It won't be as easy, though, as Drew Brees is adept at getting the ball out even when pressured. Still, if the 49ers can make him move around and get antsy, it may provide just enough distraction to cause his passes to sail ever-so-slightly and force incompletions and turnovers.

Unlike past weeks, Aldon Smith's sacks against the Bears came mostly when he simply out-manned his opponent in a 1-on-1 battle, rather than looping around the double-team-occupying Justin Smith on a stunt. This gives offensive linemen multiple things to combat when facing the 49ers front seven, as Aldon has shown the ability to blow-by his man, bull-rush him into the pocket, as well as slip through a crease undetected.

If the 49ers can stay ahead of the sack differential, they should have enough to time to carve-up a struggling New Orleans defense and keep Drew Brees running for his life throughout the game. This will be just one of many story-lines to follow as the game unfolds.

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