The big talk this week has been about how to limit Drew Brees and the Saints and what will happen if the 49ers get into a shooting war with the Saints. Leaving aside the strength of the 49ers defense (which I think matches up well with the Saints), there's the strength of the offense to consider.
In my opinion the 49ers offense is underrated and has been for a long time. I have no concerns about the 49ers hanging with the Saints, because it's shown that it can hang against other so-called "power" offenses like the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Lions. Yes the 49ers lost to the Cowboys, but that was in overtime and a game which could have easily gone the other way.
I want to take a look at the actual strengths of the 49ers offense and compare the to the Saints and see where we end up. To be clear I'm not going to argue that the 49ers offense is as good as the Saints offense. What I am going to try and show is that it's not as bad as has been claimed, nor is it a hopeless match up in a game vs a high powered offense.
Points per game
The whole point of an offense is to score points. This is where the 49ers show the biggest deficiency in comparison to the Saints. The Saints averaged just over 34 points per game, the 49ers just over 23, an 11 point differential. Looking at the rankings though and it's rather surprising. The Saints ranked are ranked 2nd the 49ers a surprising 11th. Far from being a terrible offense they're better than half the teams in the league at scoring points.
How do they compare to other playoff teams? The Houston Texans also scored an average of 24.8 points per game, but nobody talks about them like they can't hang with the big boys. The New York Giants scored an average of 24.6 points per game, essentially the same as the 49ers. The Detroit Lions averaged 29.6 points per game and squeaked into the playoffs.
The Saints had an average of 13.2 points more than their opponents over the course of the season, which is best in the NFL. The 49ers had a 9.4 points per game differential, which is 4th in the NFL. The key thing about this is that on away games the Saints differential is only 2.8 points per game, and at home the 49ers differential is 16.8 points per game. In other words the Saints win on the road on average by less than a field goal.
Yards per points
How many yards does it take to get those points? In other words, how effective is your offense? Saints average one point every 13.4 yards of offense, while the 49ers average a point every 13.1 yards of offense. Lower is better, because it means you don't have to go as far. The Green Bay Packers are an astonishing 11.6 ypp, while the Rams are an awful 23.5 ypp.
Time of Possession
The time of possession between the two teams is almost the same as well. The Saints controlled the clock 32:03 out of every game, the 49ers controlled the clock 32:00 out of every game. The last three games the Saints have controlled the clock for 32:57 every game and the 49ers for 32:13 for every game. Literally only seconds separate the two team's offenses.
Points per play
This is an important one as well for judging an offense's productivity. The Saints are at an astonishing .494 points per play (ranked 2nd in the NFL), but the 49ers aren't far behind, ranked 8th at .383 points.
Red Zone Offense
The 49ers red zone offense has been much maligned, but I'm here to tell you that it's all lies. The 49ers make 3.0 red zone attempts per game, good enough for 10th in the league. The Saints average 5.4 red zone attempts per game (good enough for best in the NFL). However, the 49ers at home average 4.2 red zone attempts, while the Saints away only average 4.0.
How about converting those attempts? The 49ers average 1.6 conversions per game at home. The Saints average 1.8 conversions per game while away.
Random Scoring Stats
The 49ers are ranked 10th in the league in 2nd half points. They're ranked 13th in the NFL in 4th quarter points.
Tossing this in as a random statistic as well. Football Outsiders ranks the 49ers as 15th in overall DVOA, which is better than half the league (and not nearly as atrocious as some would have us believe). Here's something that might surprise you--pass offense is ranked 12th in DVOA.
Some more good news. Alex Smith is ranked 10th in the league in yards per attempt at 7.07. That's almost as good as Matthew Stafford (7.62), Matt Ryan (7.32), and Ben Roethlisberger (7.95). Nobody ever talks about those QBs as being game managers.
Alex Smith is ranked 9th in the NFL in QB rating. He's thrown fewer interceptions this year than any other QB in the league. He's ranked 17th in the league in TDs, which isn't great but certainly isn't awful. Here's another fun fact: Alex Smith gains 11.5 yards per completion. The high flying Drew Brees gains 11.7 yards per completion. Alex Smith has led 5 game winning drives this season (team was behind when the offense started and the drive ended in the go-ahead score). Drew Brees had 4.
To summarize--the offense isn't nearly as bad as some people would believe. Is it as high flying as the Saints offense? Of course not. Is it awful? No it's not, unless you count being middle of the pack or slightly better as awful. Can the 49ers keep up with the Saints in a shoot out? Yeah, I think they can. Alex Smith's average yards per completion is nearly the same as Drew Brees. Turn Alex loose and let him do his thing and I think the team will be fine.
That's assuming that there's going to be a shootout, which there won't be. The key fact to remember is that the Saints only averaged 27 points a game on the road, and the 49ers have averaged 28 points a game at home.
In other words, the game will come down to the the 4th quarter and I have every confidence in Alex Smith and the rest of the offense that they can win this thing.