The New Orleans Saints right now appear unstoppable.
In brushing aside the Detroit Lions Saturday night in a wild-card playoff victory, the Saints’ jazzy offense was in perfect rhythm in both its passing and running games. Now the Saints march into Candlestick Park this Saturday to meet the 49ers in a divisional-round NFC playoff game.
Yet the 49ers are taking solace in the fact that the Saints have indeed been stopped this year. New Orleans has lost three times, including a 31-21 loss in October to the woeful Rams, who provided a bit of a blueprint for what the 49ers need to do, says San Francisco defensive lineman Justin Smith. The Rams sacked quarterback Drew Brees six times and dictated the pace of the game on defense.
“Defensively, we know we’re going to have to pressure Brees, hit him, make him uncomfortable,” Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, citing the Saints’ loss to the Rams.
NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks also looks at the matchup – pitting the Saints’ electric offense and the 49ers’ dynamic defense – and sees a game San Francisco can win if it does the right things.
Brooks says the Niners must concentrate on doing five things to slow down the Saints: Disrupt Brees’ rhythm in the pocket; stop New Orleans’ power running game (by getting defensive-line penetration and allowing linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to make plays); limit Darren Sproles' impact on the passing game (by again using the athleticism of the 49ers’ linebackers); have a defensive scheme for denying passes to tight end Jimmy Graham (using safety Donte Whitner’s coverage skills); and take away Brees’ deep passing game (by quickly recognizing play-action by Brees and the Saints’ tendencies to run deep patterns near midfield).
The biggest factor, Brooks says, will be putting pressure on Brees and learning from their preseason matchup and the Lions’ schemes Saturday, when they were able to rush effectively against Saints' right offensive tackle Zach Strief.
“In their preseason game against the Saints,” Brooks wrote, “the 49ers were able to harass Brees with four- and five-man pressures that featured overload stunts off the right. Although that contest only pitted the first-teamers for about 20 snaps, the fact that Brees was unable to find a rhythm or lead his unit to any points certainly provides San Francisco’s defensive coaches with a potential blueprint for their postseason matchup.”
And, the 49ers know this: on turf in New Orleans, the Saints offense is like a videogame; on grass and on the road, the joy stick on that videogame sometimes sticks.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle broke down the Saints’ home vs. road stats, and the numbers are dramatically different.
The Saints are 8-0 at home, 5-3 on the road; they score 41.1 points per game at home, only 27.2 per game on the road; they allow just 17.9 points per game at home, but give up 24.5 on the road; and they rush for 165.8 yards per game at home, but 100.1 on the road.
So, it’s the No. 2 seeded 49ers vs. the No. 3 seeded Saints, with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
As 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin, an ex-Saint, noted, the 49ers will have to beat good teams in the playoffs.
And the Saints – as they demonstrated once again by beating Detroit – are good.
“There’s no easy way to the Super Bowl,” Goodwin told Branch. “No matter who you play next week, the following week is going to be somebody tough. There’s no easy road.”