The wild card weekend wrapped up with some wild play in yesterday's Broncos-Steelers game, but all that matters for 49ers fans is Saturday's result. The New Orleans Saints used a monster fourth quarter to send the Detroit Lions packing and advance to a divisional showdown of 13-3 squads.
The Saints started off slow on Saturday as the Lions landed the first punch and showed a strong counter punch throughout the first half. The Lions scored on their opening drive, and then added a second touchdown right after the Saints evened it up. Unfortunately their blows were not sufficiently strong as they could not convert a pair of first half Saints fumbles into points. It was only a matter of time before the Saints offense found its gear in the Superdome. The Lions did get screwed on some calls, but they blew enough opportunities that at the end of the day they have nobody to blame but themselves.
Now, the Saints get to test out their high octane offense on the soft, damp Candlestick Park grass. The big story line heading into Sunday's game is the 49ers strong defense against the Saints high-flying offense. The proverbial unstoppable force meets the immovable object. There are numerous story lines, but much of the focus in the media will be simplified down to the Saints huge passing attack versus the 49ers defense.
And yet, that is not an entirely accurate portrayal of that matchup. From the 49ers side, one of the biggest question marks for the 49ers defense has been its susceptibility to the big play. The 49ers are fifth worst in the NFL in giving up plays of 40+ yards, with twelve such plays. Matt Barrows broke down the six longest such plays. Twelve total plays over 16 weeks is not exactly a monstrous total, but it comes down to one such play every five or so quarters, which can add up.
The Saints performance on turf versus grass aside, how can the 49ers avoid the big plays? Pressure, technique and discipline.
It is absolutely essential the 49ers get pressure on Drew Brees. If any quarterback gets enough time they can make big plays, but Drew Brees has made an art form out of picking apart defenses as his offensive line keeps pass rushers at bay. We'll have more on this, but Aldon Smith will be pivotal. The 49ers will likely be in a nickel defense for much of the game given the Saints passing attack, which means Aldon Smith will be on the field for much of the game. He and the rest of the 49ers pass rush will have to make Drew Brees aware of their presence.
Technique and discipline will sort of go hand in hand for the defense. The Detroit Lions blew numerous opportunities in this game thanks to shoddy tackling. In 2011, the 49ers defense has made its bones on solid tackling. There have been plenty of instances of poor tackling, but for the most part the 49ers have done a good job in taking down ball carriers.
This is most notable against the run, but even against the pass, the 49ers have managed to keep teams out of the end zone. Quarterbacks have thrown for pretty sizable passing yardage totals against the 49ers, but they have struggled to get into the end zone. A perfect example of this was the game against the Lions. Calvin Johnson hauled in 113 receiving yards, but he never hit pay dirt. The 49ers defense can afford to give up big yards so long as they clamp down in the red zone.
Mike Sando put together a table breaking down Drew Brees' performance on passes of 15+ yards as compared to the 49ers defense's performance on plays of 15+ yards. The 49ers have given up the big 40+ yard plays, but they have also picked off a league-leading 17 interceptions and compiled a league-leading 56.9 Total QBR. So, this is not a simple case of a significant strength against a dire weakness.
There is of course also the issue of playing out in the elements. Even though the Saints do not perform at the same level when they are outdoors, they are a sufficiently dynamic offense that will provide a stiff test to the 49ers. Just the sheer volume of weapons makes for a tough contest. They will try to establish some manner of rushing attack, but at the end of the day they will go as far as their passing attack carries them.
The 49ers will get to prove their mettle against Drew Brees and his band of merry men: Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and Pierre Thomas. They will have to take the hard road to the Super Bowl, but I can live with that. A playoff win is all that matters, no matter the opponent, but getting a chance to knock off the much-vaunted Saints is a little extra sweet.