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.

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

The 49ers were willing to be patient in securing their next head coach.

Depending on the outcome of the Atlanta Falcons’ game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, they could be required to wait another two weeks.

The other five organizations with vacancies after the regular season have filled their head-coach positions with four assistants from teams that did not qualify for the playoffs and former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, whom the Denver Broncos hired after his team was bounced in the AFC wild-card round.

Early in the 49ers’ search to replace Chip Kelly, the top targets appeared to be Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinators for two of the top-three scoring teams in the NFL.

The coach-general manager team of McDaniels and New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was the runaway favorite to be the package deal, according to sources close to the 49ers’ coaching search.

But when Caserio chose to remain as Bill Belichick’s top personnel lieutenant – just has he has in the past when other opportunities presented themselves – the job became less attractive to McDaniels, according to those sources. McDaniels announced on Monday he would remain with the Patriots for at least another year.

With McDaniels out of the picture, Shanahan became the clear favorite over Seattle assistant Tom Cable. And once Cable publicly stepped aside due to suspicions he was only being used to secure a commitment from Shanahan, only one candidate remained for the job.

Since the middle of this week, Shanahan has been the presumptive coach of the 49ers. Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator two years ago when he was officially hired just hours after the Super Bowl. He knows he drill. And this week he announced to the Falcons staff that Shanahan would be the next coach of the 49ers, according to the NFL Network.

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, the 49ers will be allowed to interview Shanahan next week – most likely, Tuesday in Atlanta. Shanahan will be involved in the process to hire the next general manager. Minnesota assistant general manager George Paton appears to be the favorite. The 49ers expect the general manager position to be filled early in the week.

If the Falcons lose, the 49ers would be able to hire Shanahan on their own time frame. It would not be expected to take long.

But if the Falcons win, the 49ers would have to wait until after Feb. 5, when the Super Bowl will be played in Houston, to hire Shanahan.

There is an advantage to being forced to wait. In the long term, the 49ers could benefit from their next head coach gaining the experience of a Super Bowl week and calling a game on the biggest stage in all of sports.

Report: Bradley accepts Chargers defensive coordinator job

Report: Bradley accepts Chargers defensive coordinator job

Former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley reportedly agreed Friday night to become defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers.

The 49ers were reportedly in pursuit of Bradley to join the staff of presumptive coach Kyle Shanahan. Bradley spent four seasons as Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator prior to landing the Jacksonville job in 2013. The Jaguars were 14-48 during Bradley's tenure.

Bradley was also reportedly the top candidate for Washington’s defensive coordinator position.

Bradley agreed to join Anthony Lynn’s staff, ESPN reported. Bradley was selected for the Chargers position over defensive backs coach Ron Milus, according to the report.

Shanahan, the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, confirmed this week he intends to take part in a second interview with the 49ers early next week after the NFC Championship game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. He remains as the only candidate for the 49ers' opening, which became open when Chip Kelly was fired after the team's 2-14 season.

The 49ers are not allowed to officially hire Shanahan until the Falcons’ season is over. Shanahan is expected to be involved in the process to hire the 49ers’ general manager, who replaces fired Trent Baalke. Minnesota assistant general manager George Paton appears to be the front-runner. He is scheduled for a second interview, likely on Tuesday in Atlanta.

Arizona vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough is the only other individual the 49ers interviewed who remains “in play” for the GM job, according to sources.