Why the 49ers Can’t Win on Saturday

| January 12, 2012

The 49ers have a lot going for them this weekend when they face the Saints, but this game is going to come down to how each team fares in the red zone, and that will ultimately prove to be their Achilles heel. San Francisco is playing at home, and New Orleans does not have a road playoff win in the franchise’s history (0-4). The 49ers have the best defensive player in football (Justin Smith), and arguably two of the next three on that list this season (ILB duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman). They will also field the player that led the entire league in our Pass Rushing Productivity metric this season in the shape of Aldon Smith. If ever a defense was set up to combat the Saints, it’s the 49ers.

The last time these two sides met was last season in a 25-22 victory by New Orleans, in San Francisco. That was, however, before the Saints acquired Darren Sproles and, keep in mind, we saw the real emergence of Jimmy Graham this season. That pairing has proven to be matchup nightmares for the rest of the NFL this season and add an extra dimension to an already formidable offense. The 49ers may be able to slow down the Saints, but I’m not sure they can be stopped. If you can’t stop them, the key then would be to outdo them with execution and efficiency. Even if the 49ers can manage that, they need their own offense to make the most of their possessions and put points on the board.

 

A Career Change

This season, Alex Smith has been a revelation for the 49ers, and looked the viable passer he has never seemed to in the past. The offense implemented by Jim Harbaugh hasn’t really simplified things for Smith in terms of number of reads. It is designed with “get-out clauses” built into every play for him though. This makes things more efficient and reduces the plays where he finds himself with nowhere to go with the football and only the is choice between a rock and a hard place to work. Those were the plays in the past that saw Smith throw interceptions and make poor decisions. This year he isn’t doing that, which is why we see two major numbers that show dramatic improvement from 2010 to this year: PFF passing grade and his interception rate.

Last season, Smith was our 32nd-ranked starter with a PFF passing grade of -10.2, but this season he has actually climbed his way into the Top 10, with a grade of +14.2That grade accounts for every passing play this season–whether he was accurate, whether he made a poor decision but the defensive back dropped the interception, whether he made a good play but his receiver dropped the pass–and represents a dramatic upturn in decision-making and competence as a quarterback. It is also reflected in his interception rate, which has fallen from a pick every 34.2 attempts in 2010, to just one in every 89 this year.

 

Red Zone Deficiency

Smith is playing much, much better than he did in 2010, that much is readily apparent. The area of the field where things get a little different is the one area that will cost the 49ers this game: The red zone. Fully aware that this article could make me look incredibly stupid on Saturday, let’s take a look at what I’m talking about. The red zone has always been a little different compared to the rest of the field. Inside the 20-yard-line you are dealing with less real estate for a defense to honor. They can then clamp down on a lot more routes without worrying about being exposed over the top by a deep ball. Leaky defenses have been able to stiffen in the red zone and force teams to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. On the other hand, offenses that have been relatively efficient up and down the field suddenly struggle to find the end zone and have to settle for three points when they run into the red zone. This game features two dramatically contrasting quarterbacks when it comes to the red zone this season.

Alex Smith, for all his improvement, has completed just 40.0% of his passes inside the 20 this season, which is the worst mark in the NFL among qualifying passers (10 or more red zone attempts). He has thrown eight touchdown passes, and just a single interception, but he throws a touchdown once in every 7.5 attempts, which is also the worst mark in the league. When Smith is faced with more compact defenses in the red zone, he struggles to maintain his efficiency, and though he has avoided making the costly mistakes, his inability to convert those attempts into touchdowns has resulted in an all-time record season for field goals from David Akers.

 

Keeping Pace

His counterpart on the Saints, Drew Brees, on the other hand has been one of the league’s best at turning red zone trips into touchdowns. Brees has thrown a massive 31 TDs in the red zone, completed 63% of his passes, and leads the league in throwing a touchdown every 2.9 attempts inside the 20 this season. When the Saints get into position to score points, they are coming away with the maximum seven points, but when the 49ers get into the same position, all too often they are settling for an Akers field goal attempt. The Saints this season score a touchdown on 58.7% of their red zone visits while the 49ers managed to convert just 40.7% of their trips inside the 20 into seven points.

The 49ers’ defense isn’t going to be able to stop the Saints on offense, they just have too many weapons. In order to win, Alex Smith can’t afford to maintain his current level of red zone inefficiency. Unfortunately for San Francisco, this just may well represent his ceiling, and when it comes to the red zone, his inadequacy in this game is going to result in a victory for New Orleans.

 

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  • Eli

    I think there should be a signature stat for quarterbacks called red zone efficiency where you look at their completion percentage with and without drops, how many touchdowns are thrown actually in the endzone and how many are receivers’ yards after the catch and other things like that.

  • motorcycle

    I’m picking the 49ers to win. 49ers are excellent in run defence and with their sub-package their rush can cause Brees a lot of problems. New Orleans’ defence isn’t anything to write home about (32nd in PFF overall defence ratings!) and I feel 49ers offense v Saints defence isn’t talked about enough in this game: Smith isn’t making mistakkes and while his red zone efficiency isn’t top-notch, I feel it will only be an issue in a high-scoring game (which I don’t think this game will be). San Fran will have to undertake long drives but this in turn will keep Brees off the field and rest up the 49ers defence. Alex Smith can throw the ball effectively short and intermediate v New Orleans on well designed plays and Gore/Hunter will get yards and run down the clock.

    For me, the determining factor will be Smith/Smith v Bushrod/Strief. That should limit Brees’ time to throw and 49ers can capitalise by crowding the intermediate area of the field. Willis/Bowman are both excellent in coverage and you can always put Justin Smith on Sproles (see Smith v Philly!) (:

    Also whenever a home playoff team gets no credit for getting there and are written off and untalked about, they usually perform. The extra motivation and a week’s extra rest makes the final score San Francisco 20 New Orleans 17.

  • hawks49

    I have done a lot of thinking about this game and could easily write a 30 page essay on it… pathetic, but true.

    Here are a few points about the game. For everyone who thinks Graham and Sproles will tear us up, I fart in your general direction.

    In my opinion Drew Brees is playing better than any QB in the league right now. Better than Rodgers and better than Brady. I would not be surprised if Brees puts up 300 yards on us… but I would also not be surprised if we hold them to a bunch of field goals once they get in or near the Red Zone. We have no problem letting up a ton of yards and then stiffening up in the red zone, we have done it the entire year. A TD every 2.9 attempts in the red zone against the niners… doubtful.

    The 49ers have struggled in the red zone, especially in the second half of the season. As much as I trust harbaugh to make the proper adjustments, realistically we shouldn’t expect to convert on more than 50-60% of our opportunities. Akers will probably be spot on again and knock in 3-4 field goals for us. The saints red zone D is not world beating and can let up scores

    Back to the Saints and match-ups: Bush was very similar to Sproles but Sproles has done a much better job for NO than Bush ever did. He is quick, short and hard to keep track of. Willis who is arguably the best and most disciplined LB in the league even got burned by underestimating Bush’s speed in week 2 last year… although he shut him down the rest of the game. There will be no room for slip ups to let that one quick dump off turn into a big game changing play. I don’t really see Willis matching up with Sproled much this game since he has been spending his time shutting down the middle of the field and the opposing teams tight ends. Bowman who is pretty much as fast as Willis will most likely be assigned the tough task of covering Brees’ second safety blanket after Graham. Bowman was effectively spying Vick all game so I think he can do well vs. Sproles but it wouldn’t shock me if he breaks off a 20-30 yard play at some point off a short pass.

    Willis will most likely be handling Graham most of the game when he is lining up as a tight end. Graham is having a phenomenal year but as of now willis is one of if not the best coverage ILB in the league. Brees will be targeting Graham a ton, like he always does, but I think that completion % is going to drop and those yards after the catch he is used to will be gone. The main place Graham scares me is in the red zone due to his height and Drew’s laser accuracy. Hopefully we will have a safety over the top to blast him if it comes his way… but with the NFL’s bias for passing teams you know we would get some BS call like hitting a defenseless receiver even if it was a clean hit.

    Overall, I think the Niners match up better against NO’s most difficult players to cover (Sproles & Graham) than anyone else in the league due to their speed, smarts and consistent tackling. They will make some plays but I don’t believe they will have their normal impact.

    The receivers for the Saints honestly scare me the most. Colston is big and can get up for a pass, Henderson is a burner and Meachem is a combo of both. As much as I like Goldson I can see him screwing up and mistiming a bomb letting up a long score. Rodgers has been playing very well all season but has definitely had a slight drop off during the second half of the season. I’m not really sure how much we are going to line him up in the slot vs. on the left side. Either way he needs to shut down whomever he is covering. I think Brown and Cullver are going to be the ones that determine the outcome of the defenses performance on the plays where we struggle to get pressure on Brees. Both have been playing better than a lot of people give them credit for. Fingers crossed they play lights out on Saturday.

    I know some might be worried about the 49ers front seven after playing very mediocre against the run in the past two games. One thing you have to realize is that we play Ray & Justin a TON more snaps than the typical 3-4 or even 4-3 defense. The past few weeks Ray has played 95% of defensive snaps and Smith is up to 91% on the season. That is true beast mode! But being in beast mode will wear you down, Smith has been playing with a bit of a knee injury lately and didn’t play any where near as many snaps against the hawks or rams. Ray also ran into hamstring issues against the rams. As you know Sopo has been playing with a few nagging injuries also. The main drop off in our run stopping can be directly attributed to these fellas being banged up. This bye week should do wonders for their health and we should see them back in mid season form come Saturday. My only fear is that Ray’s hamstring injury creeps up on him in the game. It would be a huge blow to lose his pressure up the middle and run stopping ability. Otherwise I see us shutting down the run, per usual. With these guys back and full force, I see no reason why Aldon and Brooks won’t have a effective games (especially on stunts to the weakness of their o-line, the center) if he has J. Smith and Ray are taking up their All pro linemen. New Orleans builds their passing attack through their underrate rushing attack, that is a fact! if we hold them to 60-70 yards Brees will not be seeing as big of windows to through through later in the game.

    Offensively, on the 49ers side of the ball I see this being a difficult game for us if we can’t establish the run. I’m not saying we need to average 6 yards per carry, 4 is fine as long as it is consistent and gets us into 3rd and shorts most of the time. I think the main factor to win this game will be getting into manageable third down situations because we have been very below average converting on 3rd down this season. We definitely need to throw the ball deep to give them something to think about and open things up but our main goal should be to put together long painful drives setting up the second half of the game. The Saints run defense is overrated, the only reason teams have not rushed for more on them is because of the giant leads they put on teams who give up on the run in the second half. 5.0 ypc is what they have given up this season… that is miserable. 4.0 + per carry is VERY manageable for the Niners.

    The Saints love to blitz, they bring 6+ guys second most in the league… I believe 20% of snaps. Our o-line is not the same one they demolished in the pre season but they will most likely get their licks on Smith during the game. People can say what they want about Alex but he has played very well against the blitz this year. I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but I do know deep into the season he was only trailing Brady in QB rating against the blitz. If we can take away their blitzes and get it to our receivers who can get some YAC we will be able to make them tone the blitzing down a bit and open more holes for Gore and Hunter.

    I honestly think Gore will have a great game. I don’t generally think players play any better because of emotion since everyone wants to win but… Gore has been waiting for a chance to play in the playoffs for YEARS! He has been banged up and has pretty much had 2 1/2 – 3 weeks to rest and be ready to blow up some LBs on the second level.

    I’m not going to get into what everyone already knows and has heard a bunch of times. The Saints are not as good on the road, the Saints are not as good on the grass, they can’t play outside the dome, they are 0-4 in playoff away games… blah blah blah. I think there is defintely some truth in there but it’s not like the Saints don’t practice on grass every week, b/c they do. Also, the 49ers Special Teams are better than NO in every facet, I’m tired of uninformed Saints fans questioning this.

    I see this being a game where Brees gets the best of us a few times on big passes and the 49er have their typical grind out, controlled game.

    If I were forced to make a prediction the way I believe the game will go I would say:

    49ers: 26 (2 TDs & 4 FGs)
    Saints: 23 (2 Passing TDs & 3 FGs)

    If there is any chance of a team taking a poop on themselves this week it’s the 49ers.

    -The DBs have to keep everything in front of them and not give up multiple 40 yard bombs.
    -The D-line has to get pressure on Brees, preferably up the middle where he loves to step up into his long throws.

    Go Niners! Lets show them defense can still win championships!

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Sam Monson

      Excellent and well thought out analysis of the entire encounter. Nice work sir.

  • hawks49

    Thanks! I’m tired of reading about this game, it has made me completely ineffective when I’m trying to work. Haha. Can’t wait til Saturday afternoon!

  • roguepatriot

    If Alex Smith loses this game, he’ll become Jake Delhomme, a starting QB turned journyeman backup.

    No pressure, Alex.