A rematch of last year's divisional playoff matchup, a contest which featured atop many 'game of the year' lists, pits the 49ers top-ranked defense against an explosive Saints passing attack led by Drew Brees.
In the wake of the apparent quarterback change much has been written this week on the topic of the 49ers offense. They will be going up against a Saints defense that has been under duress for much of the season. The Saints' defense gave up what has stood as season highs for points scored to their first three opponents. They seem to have settled in a bit having won four of their last five, after losing four of their first five, leaving them at an even 5-5. Despite signs of improvement, the fact remains that their defense has been atrocious this year. Last week they 'held' the Oakland Raiders to 404 yards of offense. The 49ers have only once given up more than 400 yards on defense and that was in 75 minutes of football in the 5-quarter stalemate against the Rams. The Saints are not a defensive team and, instead, rely on Drew Brees and one of the more high-powered offenses to pass their way to victory. Dylan DeSimone has already discussed the Saints' exotic defensive looks and Colin Kaepernick's chances against them, so I'm going to tackle the Saints' offense.
In last year's epic playoff battle, in which the 49ers emerged victorious 36-32, it was initially assumed by many that the Saints passing attack would be too strong for a San Francisco pass defense considered to be the team's achilles heel. They were right. What nobody expected was that Alex Smith would hang 36 points on the Saints. A top-ranked passing attack against a top-ranked run defense would appear to favor the offense, but this season things have changed.
The Saints running game, previously an afterthought, has surprised many, despite the team lacking a featured back. Last season's first-round pick, Mark Ingram has failed to live up to the hype surrounding him coming out of college that led to him being the first back selected. Instead, the Saints have relied on a three-back attack that's been surprisingly effective. While their rushing total of 94.7 yards per game has them sitting at 26th in the league, they're average of 4.3 yards per carry has them tied with the Patriots and Seahawks for 11th in the league. The Saints are last in the league in rushing attempts. It's not that they're ineffective running the ball, they just don't do it very often. Longtime Saint Pierre Thomas leads the way with 341 yards, followed closely by Ingram with 312 yards. The two will get the bulk of the carries on the ground.
The wildcard in this game for the Saints offense will be Darren Sproles. He's missed the last three games with a hand injury. He doesn't get as many carries as the other backs, but averages just as many touches per game. On the year he's caught 39 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns. Not surprisingly, with the speedy, pass-catching Sproles absence leaving more reps to Ingram and Thomas, the Saints tallied up three of their four highest rushing totals of the season over the last three games, all victories, averaging 146 yards per contest, though against three suspect run defenses.
The 49ers, however, are not the Raiders, and Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the rest of the Niners' run defense will not be pushed around by Saints offensive line, ranked 15th in adjusted line yards by Football outsiders. Four teams have rushed for over a hundred yards on the 49ers' defense this season and three of them, the Vikings, Giants and Seahawks are ranked three, four, and five in adjusted line yards.
Everyone know the Saints will pass the ball, as they rank fifth in the league in pass attempts per game. The 49ers pass defense is greatly improved and is putting up some impressive statistics. They rank second in passing yards allowed per game and first in yards gained per pass attempt. The biggest difference from last year is the lack of interceptions. The 49ers are not creating turnovers at nearly the same rate as last season. They have however, given up 5.1 yards per pass play compared with last season's 6.0. So, while the run defense is being criticized for having fallen off a bit, the pass defense has gotten better and the team, as a whole, are giving up 0.9 fewer points per game than in 2011.
Since coming over from the San Diego Chargers before the 2006 season, Drew Brees has been nothing short of phenomenal. He's led the league in completions three times, completion percentage three times, passing yards three times and touchdowns four times. His 28 touchdowns this season lead the league. He's won a Super Bowl and is among the top-ten all-time in completions, yards, touchdowns, passer rating and completion percentage. But you didn't click the link to read a list of Mr. Brees' accomplishments.
The weak link in the San Francisco secondary has been Carlos Rogers, last year's revelation and top pass defender. He's rated as the team's worst defender of the three main cornerbacks, with both Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver rated consistently higher by Pro Football Focus. He's been playing slot in the nickel defense and the Niners will be in extra defensive back packages for most of the game. Danny Amendola of the Rams was frequently matched up against him in Week 10 and had a spectacular game in his first contest back from injury, amassing 102 yards on 11 catches. How Rogers and Co. deal with Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Lance Moore will go a long way in deciding if the Saints offense can put up enough points to keep up in this contest.
The final aspect of the matchup is the pass rush. Aldon Smith is coming off a career night against the admittedly weak Chicago Bears offensive line. He piled up 5.5 sacks to take over the league lead with 15, gained the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award, and saw his name thrown in the ring as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He and his namesake Justin Smith have terrorized the left side of offensive lines all year long. The right side of the Saints line, featuring rookie fill-in Bryce Harris at right tackle, may be the Saints weak point.
The Saints offensive line has been good on the year, ranking 8th in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate. The 49ers as a defensive unit are 18th in the league with 23 sacks on the season. They've recorded 10 of those sacks against the Cardinals and Bears, the bottom two teams in sacks allowed. Against the three teams they've played with top ten offensive line units in adjusted sack rate they've gotten a combined 3 sacks, including zero in the loss to the Giants. They've feasted on weak lines while struggling against the good ones and a failure to get pressure on Drew Brees could spell a long day for the 49ers' secondary.
Some might think the Saints are on a roll, and they are. They've won four of five, including handing the Falcons their only defeat of the year. There is bad blood and a revenge factor at play as well, with last year's untimely playoff exit and the bounty-gate scandal and ensuing war of words between the two teams still fresh in many players minds. The Saints also have the home-field advantage. But their defense is bad. Monumentally bad. Their season best 404 yards allowed in last week's Raiders game illustrates this perfectly. Only one team in the league, the 1-9 Jaguars give up more than that on average coming in at 415 yards allowed per game. The Saints give up 463 yards per game. We may be in for another record by the 49ers offense, regardless of who is at quarterback. Scott Tolzien might light the scoreboard up if given the chance. The 49ers must make the most of their red zone opportunities and not get bogged down inside the 20-yard line. Frank Gore should gouge this defense behind another stellar performance from the offensive line. The Saints will score, but not enough to outpace the total given up by the matador defense they've been fielding this season. 49ers 38, Saints 28. Ole.