Saints at 49ers: Keys to the game

Saints at 49ers: Keys to the game
January 8, 2012, 4:54 pm
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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.

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