ReFo: 49ers @ Saints, Week 12

Although his teammates returned two interceptions for touchdowns, 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald had the most impressive performance hurting the Saints' playoff chances.

| 5 years ago

Although his teammates returned two interceptions for touchdowns, 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald had the most impressive performance hurting the Saints' playoff chances.

ReFo: 49ers @ Saints, Week 12

Game-changing mistake by the quarterback?

Words you may have expected from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick making only his second start, but it was New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees whose pick-six changed the landscape of the game.

With the Saints up seven and looking to add to their lead heading into halftime, Brees did not see 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks in underneath coverage and the pass hit him in the hands for an easy 50-yard interception return for a touchdown. San Francisco got another pick-six in the third quarter, though this was a much less egregious throw on Brees’ part. He was under heavy pressure and sailed a throw to wide receiver Marques Colston over the middle. The ball tipped off Colston’s hands and into the waiting arms of safety Donte Whitner.

The 49ers continue to roll, and their quarterback situation may become one of the top storylines around the league in the second half. The team is well-equipped to win with either Kaepernick or incumbent Alex Smith under center, but all signs point to Kaepernick taking over for good.

The Saints are closing in on ‘must-win’ time if they hope to make a playoff push, but their 0-4 start may prove to be too much to overcome.

Let’s take a look at the key performances that shaped this game.

San Francisco — Three Performances of Note

Dominant Pass Rusher

Often overshadowed by the Smiths (Justin and Aldon), defensive end Ray McDonald put together a tremendous game by notching eight hurries on his 49 pass rushes. Perhaps most impressive was his ability to move around the line as he posted hurries against all five offensive line positions. McDonald was particularly effective with the bull rush. He was right in Brees’ face for this second interception, but it was the fourth quarter where McDonald really started to dominate. He successfully bull-rushed offensive linemen five different times in the last eight minutes of the game. While Aldon Smith is collecting his sacks, the 49ers have a big weapon on their hands if McDonald continues to collapse the pocket every week.

Locking Down in the Secondary

For as much credit as the front seven gets for San Francisco, the entire defensive backfield did an outstanding job. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson attacked downhill and allowed only 17 yards after the catch on the eight receptions into their coverage. The cornerback trio of Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Chris Culliver allowed only 5 of 11 balls to be caught their way for 102 yards. Seventy-eight of those yards came on two receptions against Brown that needed extraordinary catches by Joe Morgan and Lance Moore. It was a nice overall effort that held Brees to only 3 for 10 passing beyond 10 yards, while ensuring that big plays were avoided on the 23 passes he completed at less than 10 yards.

Not Vernon’s Best Day

For the second time in three weeks, tight end Vernon Davis struggled as a blocker. Two weeks ago he had issues as a pass blocker, but this week he was beaten often in the running game as his -2.3 run block grade suggests. Defensive end Cameron Jordan got around him for three stops in the running game and he even fought off Davis’ usually stout down blocks in the 49ers’ outside running game. Davis also had a drop on a wide-open crossing route on his only target, leaving him without a reception for the first time since Week 5 in 2008.

New Orleans — Three Performances of Note

Tackling, Tackling, Tackling

Another week, another shoddy tackling performance for the Saints.  As a team they missed 12 with cornerback Jabari Greer leading the way with three. Of the 12 missed tackles, 10 came in the passing game. Just as the 49ers did a great job of limiting yards after the catch, the Saints were quite horrible in that department as they allowed 134 yards after the catch on only 16 receptions (8.4 YAC/reception). In addition to Greer’s three missed tackles, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and strong safety Roman Harper added two apiece leading to their -1.6 and -3.1 respective coverage grades. The Saints’ weekly tackling issues may be the story that keeps them out of the playoff picture in 2012.

Stop Machine

Defensive end Cameron Jordan (+2.7) is our league leader in stops among 4-3 defensive ends, adding five on Sunday to bring his season total to 33. He’s also our top-rated run defender at the position at +14.2, though he’s done little as a pass rusher this year relative to other edge rushers. He put together a complete game in this one, however, adding five hurries on his 28 pass rushes. He beat right tackle Anthony Davis on three occasions and Jordan also showed good discipline by holding backside contain multiple times against the mobile Kaepernick. It may be unfair to set Jordan’s pass rushing expectations with that of other 4-3 defensive ends, but this game showed that he can be at least adequate while providing his usual stellar run defense.

Not Brees’ Best

I’ve already mentioned the interceptions, but it bears repeating the uncharacteristic nature of the first pick-six from Brees (-0.4). It was a rare mistake, and unfortunately one that completely turned the tide in this game. In addition to the poor decision, Brees struggled under pressure completing only 5 of 12 passes for 61 yards and a -1.8 grade to go along with five sacks. He had his fair share of good throws, but completing only three passes beyond 10 yards is not going to get it done against a 49ers defense that controlled the short passing game. Though he was only pressured on 17 of his 46 drop-backs, San Francisco was often able to free up multiple rushers and it seemed as if Brees was under more heat than the numbers suggest. Just the perception of pressure may have been a big factor in the lack of a downfield passing attack.

Game Notes

Kaepernick was pressured on 12 of his 28 drop-backs and he graded at +2.5 on his 10 throws on those plays.

– The Saints were forced to play third-string right tackle William Robinson for 59 of their 71 offensive snaps. He held his own at -0.1 for the day, while allowing two sacks and a hurry on his 42 pass block attempts.

– The 49ers blitzed Brees on only six of his 46 drop-backs. 

PFF Game Ball

Defensive end Ray McDonald was in the Saints’ backfield all afternoon. Picking up eight hurries while defeating each offensive line position at least once makes this an easy game ball.


Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • dave

    This is why I love pff. You may have no even noticed Mcdonald because you’re watching the Smith brothers. What a great draft pick this guy has been for SF. Still got a little worried early in the game when Brees was getting way too much time to throw the ball, but then they got hot!

    Kaepernick again showed why the coaches prefer him to Alex Smith. During the game, some of our friends were saying “if that was Alex, that would be a sack,” or “Alex wouldn’t of been able to make that throw….” Kaepernick adds a dimension to this offense that it hasn’t had in a very long time. With Smith you have a safe, efficient offense, but limited. With Kaepernick you seem to have that same offense but with big play ability, and a better ability to keep a play alive. I don’t see Smith getting the starting job back without an injury. The good thing for SF is that Smith truly puts the team first and you can bet he was doing his best to help Kaep. Smith may never live up to his draft status but you just cannot say enough about this guys attitude. Kaepernick is what everyone wanted Tim Tebow to be….

    As for the Saints….they will be back for sure. They still have one of the best qbs in football. They had some major coaching changes they didnt plan for and the d for the most part has been pretty awful, but I think they will get hot this year, miss the playoffs and come back with a vengeance next year.

    • Jackson

      McDonald deserves a ton of credit for that second interception. He dominated the Saints center and Brees had no where to step up and the ball came out high and wobbly.

  • dave

    UGH! WR Williams AND RB Hunter out for the season. This is a deep team, but still that hurts. RB James and WR Jenkins to be active next week.

  • Ryan

    What do you guyses think about about the Kaepernick/Smith debate?

  • carlos

    this is like the third game this season Davis hasn’t had a reception so not sure where that 2008 statistic is coming from…

    • Steve Palazzolo

      Should have said, “in which he was targeted at least once”