One of the biggest parts of the 49ers' identity and a large part of the reason they went 13-3, won the West and locked up the NFC's 2nd seed, is their exceedingly tough defense. Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio has been a boon for the team and has turned a unit with a lot of talent and potential into one of the elite defenses in the NFL. The Niners, this week, face their toughest test of their season as they host the high-octane offense of the New Orleans Saints.
Fangio had some interesting things to say at Tuesday's press conference about the upcoming matchup.
"Well, the Saints offense, as you all know, is operating at a high efficiency right now. They've got everything going for them right now. They've got a great quarterback who's got great weapons to throw to. He's got a great offensive line in front of him. The guy's only been sacked 24 times in the regular season, and that's off of 700 times they've thrown the ball, dropped back the pass.
So, that's impressive in and of itself, and to top it off, they've got a great scheme. They really give you a lot of offense to prepare for. You never quite know what you're going to get from them and they run the ball. Everybody talks about their passing game and justifiably so, but they run the ball. I think they're rated fourth in the league in the run. So, it'll be an all-day sucker for us. We've got to come ready to go."
As Fangio points out, New Orleans is one of the more underrated rushing teams in the NFL, as people become distracted by their ridiculously efficient passing attack. While San Francisco is built as well as any team in the league to rein in that rushing attack, they'll be challenged through the air, particularly with Saints TE Jimmy Graham. The 49ers linebacker and defensive back units will have a tough test this weekend. Fangio noted:
"Well, that's a big challenge no matter who's covering him [Graham]. Could be a linebacker, could be a DB, safety, or corner. And he's a rare, rare guy at tight end. He's 6'6", runs very well. He's caught I think 99 balls in the regular season. So, he's a big part part of their offense, and his size and speed and range and his catching ability is a tough assignment for anybody. But, that's what it is this time of year. You're going against great teams, great players. Somebody's going to have to man up and cover somebody at some point."
No nonsense and true as ever. Good teams step up in the playoffs and that's what the Niners will have to do if they want to beat the Saints. Graham, obviously, isn't the only threat for the 49er defense, and another main weapon to look out for is the shifty former-Charger, Darren Sproles.
"He adds a lot. He's a special player. It's almost as if - I can't believe they got him for the cheap price that they got him for replacing [Former Saints RB] Reggie Bush. I think if it was the NBA, the commissioner might have stepped in and stopped that move. But, he's a talented player. He's extremely quick, extremely fast. He's got a great working knowledge with Brees that goes back to their San Diego days. They worked all offseason together. He's a weapon. And that's the most glaring thing when you look at this offense is they have weapons everywhere. It's hard to say, hey if we stop this guy we'll win this game, or we'll play great on defense. They've got a lot of guys we've got to stop. You've got to stop their offense."
One of the things that Saints coach Sean Payton takes pride in, is showing a lot of personnel formations and looks, and this can make it hard for teams to prepare. When asked if he's faced any team that does it as much as the Saints, Fangio had this to say:
"Probably not, and one of the reasons they do it is because they have versatile players. Graham can be a receiver. Sproles can be a receiver. They've got versatile guys out there and he's using them."
Great defense against a great offense. If you're not looking forward to this game, you're simply not a fan of football.