Saints at 49ers: Keys to the game

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Saints at 49ers: Keys to the game

Now you know why it was such a big deal for the 49ers to earn the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.The New Orleans Saints are a different team on the road, and that's a good thing for the 49ers.The Saints scored 45 points in each of their past three games -- all home games -- including a 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions on Saturday in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs.In nine home games, the Saints averaged 41.5 points per game. In five outdoors road games, the Saints averaged 25.8 points.The 49ers and Saints will meet Saturday at Candlestick Park (1:30 p.m.) in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. And here is a quick look at the keys in all three phases.When the Saints have the ball
--Wide receiver Lance Moore missed his second game with a hamstring injury, and his status for Saturday's game is uncertain. But the Saints have good depth at wideout with Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson. Quarterback Drew Brees likes to get the ball down the field, and he is often supplied good time from an offensive line that consists of three Pro Bowl players. Brees was sacked just once every 28 dropbacks during the regular season.--Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio does not call a lot of blitzes because he has found a formula that works. Thirty-six of the 49ers' 42 sacks came from the 49ers' front-four (we're including the outside linebackers because they drop down as defensive linemen in pass-rush situations). The big matchup here will be rookie Aldon Smith vs. left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who allowed just three sacks in 16 games. Because the Saints play so many multi-receivers sets, the 49ers will spend most of this game in their nickel package. And that means a busy day for Aldon Smith, who played fewer than half of the 49ers' defensive snaps during the regular season and still recorded a team-high 14 sacks.--The 49ers' secondary must hold up and limit the big play. If the 49ers continue to play seven in coverage, they will get their hands on some balls. Brees threw for an NFL-record 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns during the regular season. He also threw 14 interceptions. The 49ers are going to allow some plays. But when they have opportunities, they also must take advantage -- unlike the Lions on Saturday. That's what the 49ers did during the regular season with 23 interceptions. Free safety Dashon Goldson is going to have to have a big game.--The 49ers must do a good job of securing the tackle, and that shouldn't be a huge concern with inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrolling the field. Saints running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are slippery. They combined for 1,165 yards during the regular season and a 5.9-yard average. But the Saints' run game is more of an annoyance. They'll try to get to the outside. And they'll undoubtedly challenge Aldon Smith to see how he holds up on run plays to his side.--Willis was rusty against the Rams after he returned to action after missing three games with a hamstring strain. This is a huge game for him. He and Bowman have to secure their tackles on Thomas and Sproles. But, more importantly, Willis will have to beat up tight end Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage and neutralize his effectiveness down the field. Graham, the best receiving tight end in the NFC, gives Brees a big target at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. He caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.When the 49ers have the ball
--Tight end Delanie Walker will not be available after sustaining a fractured jaw in two places on Dec. 24. The 49ers will plug in Justin Peelle, a very good blocker, when the 49ers go with two tight ends.--There will be plenty of talk this week about all the blitzes the 49ers saw from the Saints in the exhibition opener. Teams generally do not blitz a lot in the exhibition season. And what made this all the more bizarre -- if not just downright venomous -- was the volume of blitzes Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams threw at the 49ers just two weeks after the lockout had been lifted. Saints radio broadcaster Jim Henderson later explained what he'd heard. "(Saints coach) Sean Peyton sort of expected (Jim) Harbaugh to call him throughout the week and kind of figure out a gentleman's agreement as to how the game would be played," Henderson said. "When that didn't occur, Sean just said to Gregg, 'Let the dogs out.' And that's what they did."--The Saints must scheme up their pass rush because they're lacking in individuals who can get to the quarterback. Strong safety Roman Harper led the Saints with 7.5 sacks. As a team, the Saints recorded 33 sacks -- spread out among 15 -- that's right, 15 -- different players.--Running back Frank Gore, one of the best in the business at blitz pickup, must be on-point with his assignments. The guys up front must be on the same page, too. This should be a lot easier for them to handle with a home game. Center Jonathan Goodwin, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints, will have an easier time communicating the pre-snap adjustments without the complication of dealing with crowd noise.--Of course, protecting quarterback Alex Smith will not be Gore's only responsibility. The 49ers believe they can run on the Saints, whose defense surrendered a 5.0-yard average per rushing attempt. The 49ers must get their ground game going for two reasons. 1) That's what the 49ers do best with their physical offensive line and Pro Bowl running back; and 2) By running the ball and chewing up the clock, the 49ers would keep Brees and the Saints offense off the field and unable to establish a rhythm.--For quarterback Alex Smith, he has to continue doing what he did all season when he played a huge role in the 49ers' tying of an NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.--The Saints defense does not have a lot of playmakers. This is not like the team in 2009 that won the Super Bowl. On that team, safety Darren Sharper had nine of the team's 26 interceptions. During this regular season, the Saints recorded only nine interceptions.Special teams
--Sproles is not only a big-play threat on offense, but he can also change the game on special teams. He averaged 10.1 yards per punt return with one touchdown. On 40 kickoffs, he averaged 27.2 yards.--Andy Lee, the 49ers' All-Pro punter, is the best in the league at getting distance, height and direction on his punts. He angles his punts to one sideline or another, which greatly reduces the options for a punt returner and enables his coverage team to surround the man with the ball. On kickoffs, David Akers is best-served by booting the ball out of the end zone. And that's something at which he has excelled this season, too.--Saints punter Thomas Morstead is no slouch, either. His net average of 43.1 was in the ballpark of Lee's NFL-record average of 43.99. Ted Ginn, who is back from a left ankle sprain, will resume his duties back deep on punts and kickoffs.

Eric Reid embracing new role with 49ers: 'I was made for this position'

Eric Reid embracing new role with 49ers: 'I was made for this position'

SANTA CLARA – Despite recording seven interceptions in his first two seasons and being named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Eric Reid said he believes he is now in a role that best fits his skillset.

Whereas in the past, the 49ers’ safety positions were considered interchangeable, there is a clear delineation this season under first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

“Even dating back to college, this is the first time there’s a distinct strong (safety) and a distinct free (safety),” Reid said. “I’ve been used to the interchangeability type of role.

“(In) some situations, certain calls where there’s a motion, we might flip. There are a couple situations where I might be in the post in the free-safety role, but it’s not nearly as much as it has been in the past.”

Reid, who is listed at 6 foot 1, 213 pounds, said he is excited to be stationed closer to the line of scrimmage for run support while free safety Jimmie Ward patrols the deep middle of the field.

The 49ers offseason program concluded Wednesday, and Reid found himself in the middle of the action with an interception on a short Brian Hoyer pass over the middle. While he will still be counted upon for coverage, his biggest impact could come to assist a run defense that last season ranked among the worst in NFL history.

“I love it, being around the ball more,” Reid said. “I anticipate making more tackles, hopefully making more plays. I feel like I was made for this position with my body type, being a bigger safety. I’m excited about this year.

“I feel like I’m using what God has blessed me with, more, which is my size and being in the box in the run game. In the past, I felt like I could do more. And being in the post, I can’t use my size as much when it comes to the run game.”

After producing seven interceptions in his first two seasons, Reid recorded just one interception in 26 games over the past two seasons.

As a first-round pick in 2013, the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option this season for $5.676 million. He is scheduled for unrestricted free agency at the conclusion of the season. Reid said the 49ers have not spoken to his representation about a long-term extension. That will come, he believes, if he lives up to his end of the bargain in his new, streamlined role.

“I look at it from a business standpoint,” Reid said. “I majored in business. They have me under contract. They don’t have any reason to talk to right now. I imagine if I play well in the first half of the season, they’ll reach out to me. Maybe they’ll reach out to me before training camp, I don’t know. It’s whatever route they decide to take. It’s a business. I’ll treat it as a business. I have a job to do, so I’ll do it.”

 

Mike Shanahan's official role with 49ers: Father of head coach

Mike Shanahan's official role with 49ers: Father of head coach

SANTA CLARA – Kyle Shanahan always wanted to coach football with his father. But, first, he knew he had to prove himself without any boost from his well-known dad.

Once the son established himself as one of the NFL’s respected offensive minds, the Shanahans teamed up for four up-but-mostly-down seasons with Washington.

Mike, the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, hired his son to serve as his top offensive assistant in 2010.

“I thought we saw football similar, but we quickly realized after a few weeks that we saw it differently,” Kyle Shanahan told NBC Sports Bay Area in February. “We grew together. He gave me a lot of leeway while I was there. It was fun to try a bunch of different things, having to even incorporate the zone read when we got Robert (Griffin).

“We did our deal in Washington, and I wouldn’t take that back for the world, but that was pretty much the end of it.”

Kyle Shanahan broke into the coaching ranks under Karl Dorrell at UCLA. He moved onto the NFL to work with Jon Gruden on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans. But nothing prepared him for the scrutiny he would face as offensive coordinator under his father.

Kyle Shanahan adjusted the Washington offense to take advantage of Griffin’s skills as a dual-threat quarterback as a rookie 2012. The club qualified for the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

But things blew up the following season as the Mike Shanahan-Griffin relationship soured. Shanahan and eight assistant coaches, including Kyle, were fired the morning after Washington’s 3-13 season concluded.

Mike Shanahan has remained out of coaching, though he was a finalist for the 49ers’ head-coaching job after the 2015 season. The 49ers hired Chip Kelly.

Kyle Shanahan rebuilt his career with one season as offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns and two successful seasons with the Atlanta Falcons to enable him to become CEO Jed York’s choice to replace Kelly.

There is no official role for Mike Shanahan, 64, on his son’s staff with the 49ers. But the father has attended several of the team’s practices this offseason, including both days of the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp this week. Mike has been issued his own iPad that gives him access to the 49ers playbook and coach's film. He will likely visit for an extended stay during training camp. But Kyle said he believes his dad will mostly remain home -- only a phone call away -- during the regular season.

“He’s enjoying life right now,” said Kyle, 37. “He’s got a pretty good deal in Denver, where he lives. He can help me out in other ways anyways without having to be here every day.”

Mike Shanahan does not need to be in the building every day to counsel and have influence on his son as he tries to navigate his first season as the head coach while also maintaining the responsibilities of running the team’s offense.

“You’re going 1,000 miles an hour,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Sometimes to see everything you’ve got to really slow things down and take your time to look at stuff and you don’t always have that time as a head coach.

“It’s nice when someone you know who thinks similar to you has a similar background and he just sits in a room all day and watches stuff. He doesn’t have any other responsibilities. He can see some things that I’m not always seeing and just to bring things to light that maybe I missed or other people have missed.”

Mike Shanahan was a successful NFL offensive coordinator for seven seasons. He won a Super Bowl on George Seifert’s staff with the 49ers in January 1995. His dad believes his time around the 49ers has a lasting impact.

“When I was with San Francisco, Kyle was at the 49ers training camps in Rocklin,” Mike Shanahan told Fangirl Sports Network. “He stayed with me at camp and we talked about football every night.

“He had the opportunity to experience an organization that had won four Super Bowls in nine years. He also had the opportunity to be around some great people and leaders. He still tells stories and talks about people like Steve Young, Joe Montana, Harris Barton, Tom Rathman, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Deion Sanders, and many others. What a great experience to see how these men handled themselves on and off the field.”

The Denver Broncos hired him to become head coach shortly after the 49ers’ 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. Shanahan went on to win two Super Bowls in his 14 seasons with the Broncos.

Kyle Shanahan was a wide receiver at Duke before finishing college at Texas, where he caught 14 passes for 127 yards in two seasons. He figured he would have a career in football and it would not be as a player.

“I’ve wanted to coach my whole life,” Kyle Shanahan said. “This is all I’ve known, just growing up around football. It’s almost all I’ve been into, too. Since I was little, it’s distracted me from everything I’ve done, especially school. I always tried to tell my mom, ‘Just be patient, it’ll play out for us in the long run.’ Fortunately, it did.

“Once I realized my genes were a little bit better as a coach than as a player, I pretty much locked into that – and that was about halfway through college. I haven’t looked back.”

During his short time with the 49ers, players on both sides of the ball have expressed amazement at how knowledgeable Kyle Shanahan is about the game of football. His dad told Fangirl Sports Network to succeed as a head coach he must always be dedicated to stuyding, learning and teaching the sport.

“He loves the game and knows it inside and out,” Mike Shanahan said. “My advice to him is to never lose the drive to study the game as he’s done over the last 13 years. To stay in the NFL as a head coach and have success for any length of time, you must never lose your drive to teach and stay abreast of what the top teams are doing every year: offense, defense, special teams. You must be able to coach all positions to really understand the whole game.”

Former 49ers president Carmen Policy said he remembers young Kyle serving as a ball boy during 49ers training camp in the early 1990s. Policy, who remains close to Mike Shanahan, has followed Kyle’s rise in the coaching ranks while playfully questioning the sanity of the family business.

Said Policy: “I used to tease Mike, ‘What kind of father are you to let your kid go into coaching?’ I said, ‘You should be charged with dereliction of parental duty.’ And he’d laugh and say, ‘Yeah, I tried talking to him and then my wife tried talking to him, but that’s his passion, and that’s what he wants to do, so I’m not going to dissuade him from it.’

“And, then, look at what happened. Here he is. He’s the head coach of the 49ers, and that’s just incredible.”