The first encounter of divisional weekend is the only game of the four that isn’t a rematch from the 2011 regular season, but it does provide the matchup between arguably the best defense in the league and the best offense. A true meeting of fire and ice.
Coming into the season, the prospect of the Saints travelling to an NFC West team on divisional playoff weekend would have seemed absurd, no one could have expected an NFC West team to secure a bye, but the 49ers have done just that and they will need their defense to be at its best to ensure the Saints leave the left coast with another defeat. The 49ers have faced some good offenses this season in the shape of the Eagles, Lions, and Giants but nothing comes close to the Saints’ explosive, deep, and varied attack. As good as the 49ers’ defense has been this season, this is a new test.
Barring the 49ers’ defense proving that they are in the same bracket as defenses such as the Ravens’ of 2000 and the Bears’ Superbowl-winning squad, the offense will need to score points on a Saints’ D constructed largely of smoke and mirrors. The San Francisco offense has been methodical and efficient this season, but has only topped 30 points on three occasions while the Saints have only been kept under thirty points six times–and never under 20. The 49ers’ defense has been special, but to succeed it will need to win every matchup and likely keep the Saints to a season-low points total. Here are some key matchups that could turn the opening game of the second weekend of the NFL playoffs.
Last Meeting: New Orleans 25 – San Francisco 22 (2010, Week 2)
There was no meeting between the two squads this season, but Week 2 of the 2010 season saw these two sides face off with largely similar personnel and that produced a Saints victory by only three points in San Francisco. The 49ers kept the Saints’ offense under 30 points and limited their total yardage to less than 300, two feats they will need to repeat this weekend. It was the turnovers that sank the 49ers on that occasion, handing the ball to the Saints four times while taking none back. This was a missed opportunity for the 49ers but their performance level, particularly on defense, should give them hope for repeating and bettering that score line, especially with an offense that takes better care of the football this season. The 49ers have improved personnel on the defensive side of the ball with Ray McDonald only seeing 32 snaps in that game and neither McDonald or Justin Smith providing their usual pass rush. The Saints got the win, but the 49ers, looking back, will be able to draw crucial positives from it.
All Pro vs. All Pro
This weekend affords us not only great team matchups but also great one-on-one matchups and the first of these comes between New Orleans left guard Carl Nicks and San Francisco right defensive end Justin Smith in an encounter between two PFF All-Pro’s. Nicks is our second team guard and ended the season as our fourth-highest graded run blocker (+5.7) at the position and our second-ranked pass protecting guard (+17.5). Both facets of his game will be tested against our Defensive Player of the Year, Smith, who has been our top-ranked 3-4 end for three straight seasons (+47.5 overall this season). In the last encounter between these two, Smith had one of his most average games of the last two seasons, registering only two pressures and failing to make his customary impact against the run. The Saints’ quick passing attack often deflates pressure numbers but Smith will need to raise his game not only for himself, but also to steal the attention of Nicks and left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Doing so helps to free up 49er rookie phenom Aldon Smith to take advantage of favorable matchups and get in the face of Saints QB Drew Brees. If Nicks is able to take Smith one-on-one, opening up avenues in the playbook and freeing up blockers for the Saints, the domino effect in the 49er defense could prove decisive.
Covering the Middle of the Field
Whether or not the 49er defense shuts down the Saints’ offense, the San Francisco offense is going to need to move the ball, control the clock, and score. A key area of attack for them will be the middle of the field with Vernon Davis. Having cut Braylon Edwards and due to other injuries, Davis is one of only two legitimate receiving threats for Alex Smith along with Michael Crabtree. Davis will be targeting a crucial weakness in the Saints defense, the coverage of their linebackers. Last week, between the line of scrimmage and 20 yards down field in between the numbers, the Lions completed 16/18 for 192 yards and two touchdowns as the Saints struggled to pick up Calvin Johnson working to the middle of the field. Clearly Davis isn’t a receiver at the same level of Johnson but he offers similar issues for the Saints to cover physically and the ability of the 49ers to find plays to get him the ballover the middle are likely to be a litmus test for their offensive success.
Lightning in a Bottle
The Saints’ offense is akin to a basket of poisonous snakes, even if you manage to put the lid on them, there is still a good chance that one will wriggle free and bite you when you least suspect it. The deadliest addition to their offense this season has been do-everything running back Darren Sproles (+14.7 overall) and how the 49ers choose to combat him is just one of the intriguing factors that will play out when the Saints have the ball. The 49ers certainly have a fine pair of inside linebackers with both NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis featuring in our All Pro team, but this is a new and unique test. The 49ers last faced Sproles in Week 15 of the 2010 season and he was limited to 32 total offensive yards. A repeat performance would be a monumental victory if it doesn’t come at the expense of giving up big plays. Sproles’ short area quickness has been a massive addition for the Saints and both Bowman and Willis will need to be at their best–particularly Willis who wasn’t in top form on return from injury in Week 17–to prevent Sproles from having a game-winning effect.
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