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 +14.2. That 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.
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.