49ers-Saints: Matchups to watch

January 13, 2012, 7:26 pm
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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.