49ers-Saints: Matchups to watch


49ers-Saints: Matchups to watch

SAN FRANCISCO -- Linebacker Patrick Willis is the recognized star of the 49ers' defense.And he will have to play like one of the NFL's truly elite players on Saturday if the 49ers hope to slow down the high-powered New Orleans Saints offense.The Saints have a lot of options on offense, and Willis figures to be in the middle of the action throughout Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park.The 49ers boast the faster pair of inside linebackers in the league with first-team All-Pro selections Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Those players will have to utilize their sideline-to-sideline range to keep speedy running back Darren Sproles contained.
In the regular season, Sproles carried the ball 87 times. He caught 86 passes. Every time he touched the ball, he averaged 7.6 yards. So Willis and Bowman will be busy in their quest to keep Sproles under wraps.But Willis will have equal responsibility in the passing game. And that leads us to the biggest matchup on this game . . . Tale of the tape
49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (52): 6-1, 240, Mississippi, fifth season
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80): 6-7, 265, Miami (Fla.), second seasonWillis is the 49ers' best linebacker in coverage, and he is certain to see a lot of Graham -- the best pass-catching tight end in the NFC with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season.Sure, the 49ers will mix up their coverages. And the Saints will split Graham wide on occasion, which will likely dictate matchups against the 49ers cornerbacks. But the 49ers would feel just fine assigning Willis to match up with Graham for the bulk of the game."He's a big part part of their offense, and his size and speed and range and his catching ability is a tough assignment for anybody," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "But that's what it is this time of year. You're going against great teams, great players. Somebody's going to have to man up and cover somebody at some point."Earlier in the season, the 49ers assigned Willis to Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew. In that game, Pettigrew caught eight passes but averaged just 5.3 yards per reception. Graham is bigger than Willis, so Willis will undoubtedly try to get physical with Graham near the line of scrimmage to re-route him and disrupt the timing with Brees.
"They (the Saints) move this guy around more," Fangio said. "He'll be looking like a receiver a lot of times. So it's a little bit more challenging in that area."Willis is completely healthy after missing three games with a hamstring strain. He returned for the regular-season finale against the St. Louis Rams and, admittedly, did not play well."I feel like these last two weeks of getting back out here, practicing, running and doing football again has really helped me," Willis said. "I'm really looking forward to this game this weekend and getting back on track."And his assignment can get no more difficult than going up against an offense that features quarterback Drew Brees distributing the ball to some of the top play-makers in the game."I feel like Jimmy Graham is a good tight end," Willis said. "All this year, we've faced some good tight ends with the teams we've played. He's certainly one of their offensive threats and we have to make sure that we know where he is at all times. At the end of the day we just have to play defense." Other matchups worth watching49ers RB Frank Gore (21) vs. Saints SS Roman Harper (41): As important as Willis is to the 49ers' defense, Gore will be that man on offense. And, like Willis, Gore will have big responsibilities on two different levels. First, Gore must be spot-on with his blitz pickup assignments. The 49ers have to provide quarterback Alex Smith with time to throw, and the Saints lack great one-on-one pass-rushers. Harper is New Orleans' leading sack artist. He recorded 7.5 sacks, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will try to devise different ways to provide a clear path for him to the quarterback. Gore will be the last line of protection for Smith in the 49ers' backfield. But, also, Gore will come head-to-head with Harper when he has the ball in his hands. The 49ers want to get their rushing attack going against the 12th-ranked run defense. The 49ers envision to giving Gore, who is rested and ready for his first NFL postseason, a lot of carries. The 49ers hope to control the clock to keep Brees and the Saints offense off the field. Harper is the Saints' leading tackler, so he's equally important in run support -- going head-to-head against Gore.49ers DE Aldon Smith (99) vs. Saints LT Jermon Bushrod: The 49ers recorded 42 sacks this season without relying much on blitzes. That will be one of the keys in this game, as the 49ers hope to put pressure on Brees without weakening their coverage on the back end. Smith led the 49ers with 14 sacks as a rookie. And he'll be matched for most of the game against Bushrod, who surrendered just three sacks in 16 games. "He uses his quarterback around him and he's not going to be the reason Drew Brees gets sacked," Smith said. "It's challenging. Even if you do get pressure, he might find somebody open as soon as you get there. You can't let that deter you from what you want to do need to do, keep after him and keep attacking and eventually you'll get to him." Brees was sacked once every 28.4 drop-backs during the regular season.

49ers receive early vindication on selection of Reuben Foster

49ers receive early vindication on selection of Reuben Foster

SANTA CLARA – General manager John Lynch received the text message Wednesday from Dr. Tim McAdams that might have come as a surprise to many of the teams that passed on linebacker Reuben Foster during the draft.

The 49ers’ team physician declared Foster’s surgically repaired right shoulder is ready to play football. The 49ers are scheduled for their first practice of training camp on Friday, and Foster will be a full participant.

“We feel great about our doctors, our medical program here,” Lynch said on Thursday, as the 49ers reported to training camp. “Our trainer, Jeff Ferguson, is as good as there is in the league. Dr. McAdams, world-renowned. He has the Stanford name behind him.

“We challenged him numerous times. From his observation, the shoulder was good.”

Foster’s tumble to the back end of the first round was widely blamed on his shoulder condition. The 49ers traded with the Seattle Seahawks to select Foster with the No. 31 overall pick. Almost immediately, the 49ers were scrutinized for making the selection.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported some teams did not even consider drafting Foster. One “well-placed source with knowledge of the injury” told Schefter that Foster’s surgery “didn’t take.”

The 49ers’ willingness to clear Foster for the first day of camp is a reality that appears to be in stark contrast to the opinions around the league that Foster’s shoulder would require additional surgery. The 49ers expect Foster to be ready Sunday for the first padded, contact practice of training camp.

“We pride ourselves in doing all of our due diligence, not afterward, but before we make the decisions,” Lynch said. “We’d done exhaustive research on Reuben Foster in a lot of different areas. Medically was one area.”

Coach Kyle Shanahan said he the nature of Foster’s injury convinced him that even the worst-case scenario, in the big picture, was not so bad. Foster sustained a torn rotator cuff in Alabama’s national semifinal game against Washington and played the championship game against Clemson with the injury.

“I was proud of our doctors for putting themselves out there and giving their honest opinion about what they felt,” Shanahan said. “They feel it is healed, and it’s going to be good. I respect them for doing that. They went against the norm on that, and that isn’t always easy.

“(I’m) pretty confident when it is a shoulder injury, if it doesn’t heal the right way or it’s done wrong, you have to re-do a surgery, yes, it’s time, but it’s not going to affect the guy we saw on tape.”

John Lynch concerned about 49ers' top pick Thomas


John Lynch concerned about 49ers' top pick Thomas

On April 27, the 49ers selected Solomon Thomas with the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

As of Thursday afternoon, he remains unsigned.

49ers general manager John Lynch addressed the media on Thursday and was asked about the defensive lineman's status.

Thomas missed most of the 49ers' offseason program because NFL rules stipulate that rookies who have not completed their undergraduate degrees are ineligible to join on a full-time basis until after their schools' final classes of the spring semester.

Stanford's late schedule put Thomas a little behind schedule.

“We have our iPads, so I’ll be able to watch film from that,” Thomas said in mid-May. “I talk to Josh (Garnett) quite a bit, and he’ll give me advice on how to go through this process – how to stay in touch, just keep learning along the way and keep progressing along the way.”