This weekend the New Orleans Saints will travel to take on the San Francisco 49ers. This article examines the battle between an unstoppable force (the Saints Offense) and an immovable object (49ers Defense). One side has to give, but which will it be? In the 1st part of this article, writer Brandon Burnett explains why the 49ers Defense will stop the Saints Offense, resulting in San Fran's advancement to the NFC Championship. In the 2nd part of this article, Daniel Hutchinson argues that the high-octane Saints Offense is firing on all clyniders and will not stutter against San Fran.
Part 1: 49ers Defense > Saints Offense
Call in the cavalry boys, the Saints are coming to town.
According to most, the 49ers are going to need to pull out all the stops just to survive on Saturday afternoon at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco will enter its first playoff game in nine years as underdogs to the New Orleans Saints. The odd part is, the 49ers are at home. According to beyondthebets.com, they are the fourth home-underdog in a post-Wild-Card round since 2002. And the other three cases were all in either the NFC or AFC championship games.
Drew Brees and the Saints have marched their way to nine-straight impressive victories, and the world has listened. But the beast that is the 49ers' defense will be fresh off a fortnight of rest come Saturday. Brees and the rest of the Big Easy would be wise not to fall sleep on the San Francisco defense, much like everyone else seems to be.
There are a few that will give San Francisco a fighting chance in their own house this weekend, but those voices are likely to be muffled by the cries for the Packers-Saints shootout "in-waiting".
The NFL has became the most popular sport in America by riding its gunslingers and high-powered offenses to success. As a huge fan of the NFL, I appreciate what the brilliant minds of Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady have done for the sport. But even at the young age of 24, I won't be swayed by the trending perception that offense now wins championships.
If that were the case, why would playoff teams like the 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and Houston Ravens remain in the elite-eight? I know Tebow threw for over 300 yards against the Steelers, but I'm pretty sure the Broncos are still fighting due to reasons other than that. These teams pride themselves on defense and running the ball well, and they make up half of the playoff field. If offense was truly the way to go, why do so many other successful teams fail to follow the recipe?
But that's clearly all just opinion. Another opinion I have and the reason we are here, is my belief that the 49ers' defense is capable of, and will, derail the freight train that is the New Orleans' offense. Now I'll do my best to explain why.
It's An "All-Pro" Party In The Trenches.
One thing that all great quarterbacks have always had, is a great offensive line protecting them. Brees has arguably the best of any front unit in the league today. New Orleans' two guards, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, both made the All-Pro team this year. First time that has happened since 1953. They also have a left tackle in Jermon Bushrod that holds his own quite well.
That's all fine and dandy, but how many defenses have they lined up across that boast three all-pros inside just their front-seven? None until Saturday. 49ers' inside linebacker Patrick Willis was selected to his fifth all-pro team in as many attempts, and this year he helped 2nd-year linebacker NaVorro Bowman reach the same status.
So the 49ers will match the all-pro guards with all-pro linebackers, and raise the bet with Justin Smith. This year's all-pro defensive tackle, also made 2nd-team all-pro honors as a defensive end. That has never happened in the history of the all-pro selections. I know I've said "all-pro" several times too many, but I hold that honor in a much higher regard than a player making it to the Pro Bowl.
Rookie of the year nominee, Aldon Smith looks to be a thorn in the side of Brees and the Saints all afternoon this Saturday. Fans are still arguing over nicknames for the newcomer as he's taken the league by storm this year. His 14 sacks(all in last 13 games) were most among rookies, and fell just a half-sack short of tying Jevon Kearse for the rookie record. The 49ers were shy to turn him loose early in the season, but once his raw talent was completely undeniable, playing time became inevitable.
The Saints are known for using multiple receiver sets, and this will likely force the 49ers into the nickel package for much of the contest. That means Smith will likely get the snaps of a starter, as he is often featured as a pass rusher in this package. For those that weren't previously aware, he made his presence known in a huge Monday night smack down of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. The 49ers won 20-3, and King Aldon recorded 2.5 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and helped force three interceptions.
A Much Improved Secondary
Obviously when facing any high-powered offense, getting to the quarterback and making plays in coverage will be crucial. One key stat to San Francisco's revival in 2011 was their +28 turnover ratio. Led by 23 interceptions, the 49ers have forced 38 turnovers this season. In other words, opponents give them the ball back over 2.5 times per game, on average. Dashon Goldson has been a ball hawk in the secondary, as he joined Carlos Rogers with six interceptions apiece. Donte Whitner is another to keep an eye on, as his speed and size will help with the Saints' receivers that have plenty of both.
The Detroit Lions had plenty of chances in the Superdome for interceptions. They forced two first-half turnovers by the Saints and led 14-10 going into halftime. They failed to capitalize in the 2nd half and Brees took over. The 49ers haven't missed on their opportunities this season, and their ability to tackle is light years beyond what the Lions could do in the wild-card round.
One thing to point out in this game, is the added potential for deep passes by the Saints. Sean Payton is aware of the 49ers defensive success in the red zone. San Fran is 4th in the league inside the 20 yard-line, and leads the league with just 1.4 touchdowns allowed per game. Look for Brees to test the secondary often when he gets within 40-50 yards of the goal line, as the Saints excel in those types of passes and they will be trying to score with big plays.
Special Teams Will Aid The Defense
Back to the All-Pro selections, 49ers' players nabbed up the punter and kicker spots as well. Punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers both earned the honors after each had record-setting seasons. Much of this should be credited to Harbaugh's staff, but the two are impressive with their feet, nonetheless.
The 49ers have a unique ability to control field position, and have done so in all 16 games this year. They have plenty of special teams' standouts that have made the tackles and stopped fearsome returners like Patrick Peterson in their tracks. The 49ers also look to have Ted Ginn Jr. back in the mix, and he's another threat in this game.
There are a few other advantages that could be pointed out as well, but I don't want to get carried away. The game is only 60 minutes and there are endless factors that come into play and can possibly alter the outcome. The outdoor atmosphere will certainly slow the Saints at least a little, as they don't move the ball as well outside of a controlled environment. Swirling winds and a muddy field at the Stick could also play a factor in dooming the Saints. I suppose only time will tell.
Until then, Brees and the Saints will boast that their offense is potent enough to win on any field in any conditions. More so than the conditions, they should be worried about the opponent. The 49ers may be inexperienced in the playoffs, but they have plenty of high-energy veterans on defense that know about big games. Sorry New Orleans, but the livin' ain't easy in San Fran, not on Saturday it won't be.
Part 2: Saints Offense > 49ers Defense
In the 2011 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers, gave up an average of 230.9 passing yards a game, while allowing 20 receiving touchdowns. Compare that to New Orleans who ranked first in passing during the regular season and Drew Brees, who passed for more than 230 yards in every game this season, and it only took him only to week nine to score 20 touchdowns.
Brees is a superb player, having thrown for 5,476 total yards and 46 total touchdowns during the 2011 regular season. In the playoffs, Brees continued to roll as he threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns. One touchdown was 41-yard pass and another was a 56-yard pass.
New Orleans’ receivers are no slouches either with the team featuring two receivers who during the regular season gained over 1,000 yards. Jimmy Graham had 1,310 receiving yards with 11 touchdowns, and Marques Colston 1,143 receiving yards with eight touchdowns.
San Francisco has a good defense, playing against teams with premier receivers, yet they will still have their hands full all day defending Brees and company.
During the 2011 regular season, San Francisco finished first in rushing defense allowing an average of only 77.9 yards a game. However, this weekend the defense will be playing against the sixth ranked rushing offense.
New Orleans finished the regular season with three backs who rushed for more than 450 yards. Darren Sproles rushed for 603 yards and two touchdowns, Pierre Thomas rushed for 562 yards and five touchdowns, and Mark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns.
In New Orleans’ wild-card win over Detroit, Thomas and Sproles rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns. Ranking in the top ten in offensive passing and rushing makes New Orleans a double threat on offense, and will be difficult for any defense to stop.
A last interesting aspect of this game will be the turnover battle. During the regular season, Brees only threw 14 interceptions, while San Francisco had 23 interceptions during the season. Additionally, New Orleans lost five fumbles on rushing or receiving plays on the season, and fumbled the ball twice against Detroit. This season San Francisco’s defense recovered 15 fumbles. With both teams battling back and forth on the scoreboard, one turnover either way could be a deciding factor in the game.
New Orleans’ offense has been hot all season and looks to continue their hot streak in San Francisco. Can San Francisco’s defense slow down Brees and company? Yes, but it is going to hard work and determination to do so.