49ers vs Saints: Keys to the Game

Chris Graythen

This weekend's battle against high-flying New Orleans presents both challenge and opportunity for San Francisco. How can the Niners make a statement and nab a victory?

In sizing up a duanting matchup against New Orleans, let's take a look at some things the 49ers can do to come away with a much-needed victory.

Get the running backs involved in the passing game, especially as safety nets against the blitz

Pass protection was a huge issue against that aggressive Carolina front seven last weekend. The Saints boast a similar pedigree; defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a penchant for sending the house against opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers' porous pass blocking, coupled with Kaepernick's inability to evade the rush and make good decisions under duress, could be a recipe for disaster during this week's game. The 49ers coaching staff must dedicate some scheming and practice time to developing alternative passing options against the blitz. While the receiving corps has been abysmal, the 49ers boast one of the league's best rushing attacks. Why not maximize that talent and incorporate them into the passing game more? They could be a vital remedy against the blitz. Having the backs run screens or routes in the flat would allow Kaepernick to get the ball out quickly. It would also enable a quick runner such as Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James to have the ball in space and gain significant yardage. I realize running backs play a significant role in pass blocking, so maybe you have a two back set that keeps Gore or Miller in pass protection while the other back runs a route.

I'm a rudimentary X's and O's guy so if the logic is flawed please forgive me, but it seems like a plausible resolution on the surface.

Some bold playcalling and even some trickery (when field position allows for it) would go a long way

Remember the touchdown pass from Akers to Crabtree in the Rams game at the end of 2012? I'm not saying to get that crazy but, my god, what has happened to the offensive coaching staff's cojones? The coaching staff's lack of confidence and foresight was on full display when they elected to kick a field goal on a 4th and 1 at the Carolina 2 yard line. In actuality, they fielded the offense on that 4th and 1 but only as a ploy to try to draw the Panther defense offsides. It didn't work and they had no real intention of going for it. That, as it turns out (along with other plays later in the game), was the difference between a win and a loss. Why couldn't they have sent Kaepernick on a bootleg with a receiver running a quick out or shallow drag? That gives you two opportunities to get the first down or score. If the receiver is open, Kap can throw it and if not, his length and speed give him the ability to get the first down with his legs, perhaps beating the defender to the sideline.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, current playcalling and identity seems to be the antithesis of what it was in 2011. I could see if that change lent itself to more success...but as we all know, it clearly hasn't. Maybe try an end around if the time is right, put LaMichael James in as a slot receiver or split him out wide, just do something, anything, to galvanize this passing attack and provide a spark.

Speaking of providing a spark, how about some traditional play action from under center as opposed to the pistol play action that doesn't seem to be fooling anybody these days? With a formidable rushing attack, the 49ers should be leveraging a defense's focus on this to open up receiving options down the field.

Creative blitzing to get to Brees

Unfortunately, this will be easier to do (and a lot less risky) if Reid is in the lineup, but it doesn't appear likely he will be. At any rate, they Niners must still try to get to Brees early and often. It's been proven time and time again that Brees gets rattled against a good defense, especially when being pressured.

We saw it early in the 2011 NFC Divisional game, where, despite ultimately throwing for over 400 total yards, Brees was intercepted twice in the first half en route to a 49ers victory.

We saw it last year when the 49ers beat the Saints in New Orleans:

C/ATT

YDS

AVG

TD

INT

SACKS

QBR

RTG

D. Brees

26/41

267

6.5

3

2

5-36

26.2

86.1

Credit: ESPN stats

More recently, we saw the Jets contain Brees in a win over the Saints in Week 9.

C/ATT

YDS

AVG

TD

INT

SACKS

QBR

RTG

D. Brees

30/51

382

7.5

2

2

2-16

52.4

79.0

Credit: ESPN stats

As evidenced by the stat lines, Brees is not the kind of quarterback that handles pressure with aplomb. He has a tough time evading it and forces throws when faced with it. He still gets his yards, no doubt-that comes with throwing the ball about 50 times per game, but he's not nearly the same quarterback against an aggressive defense. This would be an ideal time for Aldon Smith to make a triumphant return and deliver one of his signature multiple-sack games. Vic Fangio has already noted that Smith will see significant playing time in New Orleans this weekend. Maybe playing that up and calling some inside linebacker blitzes will catch the Saints off guard.

With a New Orleans rushing attack that ranks 23rd in the league, the 49ers can dedicate more focus to the team's passing offense. That pedestrian rushing attack may bode well for San Francisco, as the 49ers tend to fair pretty well against one-dimensional teams (see their past three games against the Packers, before Eddie Lacy turned into a legit running back), even if that lone dimension is a strong one.

Draw on motivation

The 49ers like the role of the underdog; they relish it. So they should have no qualms being an underdog going into this weekend's matchup. Jim Harbaugh has made a pointed effort to keep his team hungry despite success. He and his staff conjured up Freddie P. Soft, a fictitious character embodying the complacency that can sometimes afflict winning ball clubs. He's also said on several occasions that you have to worry when people start heaping praise upon you, because that's when you're most vulnerable. Not many are heaping praise upon the red and gold as of their most recent loss. In fact, there's been a whole lot of doubt slung their way. A few players in particular should have something extra to prove this weekend:
  • Before the season started, Frank Gore publicly stated he had more motivation than ever to prove critics wrong and show he still has plenty in the tank. Thus far, he's done just that. The nine-year vet ranks sixth in the league in rushing and is authoring one of the most successful seasons of his illustrious career. In case you haven't heard, the 49ers' passing game ranks dead last in the league, so Gore will be heavily relied upon to gash a soft New Orleans run defense currently giving up 117 yards per game to opposing offenses. And after this defense infamously attempted to "attack his head" at Gregg Williams' behest during the 2011 playoffs, Gore should be even more fired up than usual.
  • Like it or hate it, Colin Kaepernick derives his motivation from Twitter naysayers, though he doesn't have to relegate his source of motivation to just Twitter these days. Trent Dilfer labeled him a remedial quarterback after his first read, fans and pundits (myself included) have declared this year a clear regression for the third-year quarterback. Some have even pined for the days of Alex Smith. Kaepernick has never had this much adversity or so much to prove in his young career. Turning in a solid performance in New Orleans and walking away with a win would be a nice early milestone for the 49ers signal caller.
  • This will be the first game Aldon Smith sees significant action in since his stint in rehab. As if that wasn't enough, Smith is facing a gun charges trial as well. The supremely talented pass rusher has had monumental distractions off the field, but they are now approaching a stage of resolution. Number 99 should have some added fuel and focus to get back to doing what he does best, especially if he wants to regain the trust of 49ers brass and convince them that he's worthy of a new contract.

A win in New Orleans might seem out of reach right now but then again, isn't this largely the same story as their battle in the 2011 postseason? The Saints were an offensive juggernaut. The 49ers had a top-tier defense but a pedestrian passing offense. That game turned out pretty well for San Francisco. Had the 49ers beaten Carolina last weekend, there would be a lot less doom-and-gloom hanging over this matchup and although it was still a loss, it's not as if the 49ers got their butts handed to them. It was a hard fought contest and Carolina was eager to show the world they're a contender. The 49ers had several chances to win, they just couldn't cash in on opportunities and it resulted in a costly one-point defeat. If the team can get a win this weekend, their 2013 season is right back on track; the Carolina snafu will be blip on the map. If they can't muster a victory, more questions will arise about their legitimacy and playoff aspirations will be in jeopardy.

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