The 49ers have the luxury of getting to play at home, where they went 7-1 during the regular season and allowed an average of 10 points per game. The blueprint is clear. They must run the ball on offense to control the clock, win the field position battle on special teams, and rely on their hard hitting defense to slow down the efficient Saints offense. If any team in the NFC can execute that plan, it is the 49ers. They were fourth in the league in total defense and allowed a league low 23 touchdowns (3 rush, 20 passing), and they had an NFL-best turnover margin of plus 28. The 49ers want to avoid a shootout. Alex Smith has been playing mistake free football with only 5 interceptions on the year but also threw for 2,332 fewer passing yards than Drew Brees.
From the Offense:
Expect Harbaugh to use heavy sets often. The Saints have many capable defensive backs and lack big powerful linebackers which will play into the 49ers strengths. A lot of rushes will be the key to wearing down a Saints defense who have been vulnerable to the power rushing attack.
A lot of underneath throws over the middle will help further expose the Saints weaknesses and help Alex Smith to get into a rhythm. I anticipate Vernon Davis to try to go deep often. This will force the safeties to respect the deep throw and help clean out linebackers for the short passes to the receivers and check downs to the backs.
Alex Smith threw for more yards than Drew Brees in the last meeting of these two teams in week 2 of last year. Smith threw for 274 yards and Brees had 254 yards. Smith threw two interceptions that game and mishandled a snap from the center which resulted in a safety. Smith and the niners have been doing a better job of protecting the ball (least amount of giveaways in NFL). Smith will rely on his runningback to help set up the passing game. He will take advantage of short throws but will take his shots deep when the safeties cheat up to help protect against the run. Smith is also not afraid to take off and run the ball. His mobility will shine through in this game.
Vernon Davis should be mentioned as the go to guy due to the lack of sizable and capable linebackers on the Saints. Vernon Davis should see favorable match ups all game and should have no less than 5 catches by games end even if they decide to use a cornerback to cover him like they did in the last meeting.
Crabtree has posted 80+ yard games in two consecutive games for the first time in his career. He also pulled in 2 touchdown catches in his last game against the rams for the first time in his career. Crabtree is playing the best football he has ever played in the NFL and it could not come at a better time. Ginn missed the last two regular-season games with a left ankle sprain but should return to action against the Saints. Williams was also cleared this week after sustaining a concussion Dec. 24 against the Seahawks. Ginn has been indispensable to the team as a return man. Kyle Williams offers a sure handed receiver with speed that is finally coming into his own as a route runner. He is poised to have a break away play or two when lined up in the slot.
Frank Gore has been limited in recent weeks. He has denied being hurt and Harbaugh denied that he would hold players out for the play offs during the final games of the regular season but that is exactly what they did with Gore. Gore should be running full speed on Saturday and anything less than 20 carries would be disappointing to fans and to the scoreboard. His role as a blocker during blitzes is vital as well. Few running backs in the league can block as well as Gore. Hunter has done a fine job filling the void and seems to be the better receiving outlet for Smith than Gore has been. Gore has the power and patience between the tackles few backs share and there will be many yards to be had in the middle of the field on the ground while hunter will see the off tackle carries.
Healthy with the exception of TE Delanie Walker who suffered a broken jaw. Walker has been used almost solely as a blocker. He has regularly lined up as a fullback, tight end, and wide receiver. His versatility will be missed, he has played in over half of the 49ers offensive snaps. He leads all backup tight ends in number of snaps with the exception of the Patriots, Hernandez. Bruce Miller, Justin Peele, and tackles Alex Boone and Joe Staley(former collegiate tight end) will see snaps at tight end to help block saints leading sack man, safety Roman Harper. Boone is capable at left tackle which allows pro bowler Joe Staley to be moved in as an extra blocker on either side of the line.
From the Defense:
Expect the Saints to line up with 3+ receivers often due to their high octane aerial attack. This will force the niners to use their Nickel package(2-4-5, 2 DE, 4 LB, 5 DB), which has been their most fruitful package in obtaining sacks. Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ray Mcdonald, Ahmad Brooks, are the four best pass rushers and they will have to be able to get pressure with just a 4 man rush. Brees is fantastic against the blitz. The Lions blitzed 5 or more guys on 90% of their plays last Saturday and Brees was able to score on every drive excluding the 2 drives the receivers fumbled on and on the final drive in which he kneeled down to end the game.
The Saints have improved their rushing game this year but will have a hard time running against the top ranked rush defense. Along with rushes the Saints will try screen passes often which has not been the niners strong point on defense. Late in the game don't be surprised to see Willis lined up on the line to try for added pressure when the saints line up with 4 or 5 spread wide. The 49ers must be able to get pressure with 3 or 4 man rushes.
Aldon Smith should see more time in this game than games past. He is to much of a disruptive force to be left on the sidelines. Justin Smith can be kicked in and play nose tackle while Aldon takes his place at end in the base 3-4 package. This will put the 49ers best d-lineman (Justin Smith) across from the Saints weak link on their offensive line, Center, De la Puente. The niners will enact the DE stunts often as well to try to take advantage of that weak link when using 4 down lineman. Ray Mcdonald is the unsung hero on the D-line this year, with his constant penetration on rushing downs, no 49er is held more on the line than he is. He lunges threw gaps and offensive tackles have no choice but to hook him so he doesn't clobber the quarterback.
Willis is coming off a Hamstring injury and looked pretty bad in his last game against the Rams. He would take blocks and go to the ground often. With the bye week Willis has had time to get back to pro bowl form and the niners need nothing less from him. Bowman has played better than Willis throughout the year and will more than likely be the one matched up against the running backs as Willis will be assigned the TE when possible. OLB Ahmad Brooks is having a career season and has done an amazing job cementing the edge and shedding blocks consistently. He has also established himself as an effective pass rusher and hurries the QB frequently and is the LB who blitzes most often but has been a bit of a liability in pass coverage. Haralson is great in coverage but has been exploited in the running game. He has a hard time being effective when blocked by the left tackle but has a knack for forcing fumbles and knocking balls loose from receivers hands.
Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have been physical Corner backs all year. The Corners physical play will force Brees to throw into some tight holes which could cause some tipped passes which could lead to interceptions. Rogers has played at a pro bowl level and has more interceptions this year than the last five years of his career combined. Brown has had issues with interference due to his physical nature but he is typically the corner that gets picked on when opposing QBs pass for more than 300 yards. Culliver has been outstanding for a rookie as the nickel back. His large frame makes him capable of lining up against tight ends effectively and will probably see more than his fare share of snaps lined up against the 6'5 TE, Jimmy Graham.
The two ball hawking and hard hitting safeties will have to play deeper than they are use to playing. The deep pass is a constant threat against Drew Brees and the 49ers will have to be prepared otherwise the Saints speedsters will burn them. The Saints will try to establish the run if only to make the play action more effective. These safeties like to help against the run and have been caught cheating up before (see Dallas game in overtime). The 49ers lead the league in takeaways and look to the defensive backs to force fumbles or interceptions.
3 time Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee has been a tremendous punter all year will be instrumental in the success of winning the field position battle. This game will not be a shoot out in candlestick. Lee will have to take advantage of his 50.9 yd punt average and punt the ball inside the 20 to keep Brees on his heels. Lee has 14 punts inside the 10 yard line this year (28 punts inside the 20) and a lot of that can be attributed to great coverage by the gunners Culliver and Spillman (honorable mention Costanzo).
Akers has been a scoring machine (166 points scored), eclipsing the franchise scoring record in a single season set by Jerry Rice. Akers has made 84.6% of his attempts and made 7 of 9 beyond 50 yards. He will see plenty of action against the Saints if the 49ers are unable to get their redzone offense going, as has been the case all season.
Ginn is posting a career best 27.6 yds per kickoff return and will be vital in shortening the field for the 49ers offense. He is coming off a left ankle sprain and may not be at his top form. If he is slowed down, Kyle Williams or Reggie Smith will fill the void as the return men.
Things to consider:
Last meeting between these teams (week 2 last season) was decided by a field goal as time expired, 25-22
Last meeting the 49ers had 4 fumbles (2 lost, 1 safety) and threw 2 interceptions. The Saints had 1 fumble
Last meeting running back Pierre Thomas led the Saints in receptions
Vilma and Willis are coming off injuries, both will probably not be playing their best ball.
Smith has not had a 300 yard game all year; Brees has two games that were less than 300 yards.
Roman Harper and Lance Moore sat out of practice on WednesdayBack to the San Francisco 49ers Newsfeed