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49ers Vs. Saints: Is There A Cat To Be Let Out Of A Bag?

As the 49ers get ready for Saturday's game against the Saints, we've had plenty of discussion about the 49ers defense against the Saints offense. And yet, the 49ers offense will more than likely need to find some ways to put points on the board if the 49ers are going to win this game.

I was talking with Florida Danny yesterday about the 49ers offense and some of our "gut feelings" about the game. I briefly mentioned how over the last few weeks I have found myself wondering if the team has some number of plays that have been kept under wraps since training camp. Once the team got off to a strong start and realized what the defense was bringing to the table, is it possible they decided to keep some plays off the field to keep it off the Saints film?

I have mostly considered this because of Coach Harbaugh's apparent enjoyment in holding his cards close to his chest. However, in my discussion with Danny, he raised an interesting example that could prove this might be partially true.

For the first 15 games of the season, Michael Crabtree averaged 10.0 air yards per target and had only eight targets behind the line of scrimmage. In week 16, Crabtree had 11 targets averaging 3.5 yards per target and he was targeted four times behind the line of scrimmage.

So, what was with the sudden love of the hitches and bubble screens to Michael Cratbree? Is it just to get the Saints thinking about it, or was it preparation for plans to attack what appears to be a weak side of the Saints defense?

Beyond that, do people think we'll see a bit more from the offense on Saturday? I don't expect some high-flying, wide open attack, but maybe something to mix things up even further against an up and down Saints defense?

Speaking of offense, I posted a transcript from offensive coordinator Greg Roman's press conference with the media yesterday.

Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman
Press Conference - December 29, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center

Opening Statement:

"Good afternoon. Obviously, we're preparing for a really good team. Defense for the Saints has been very productive this year. I think, how many games have they played now, 17? They've played good enough to win 14 of them. They have a very active, aggressive defense. They play fast, got a lot of good players, a lot of good scheme. We're just working through it. We'll get into the more of the situational stuff today. We're really, really excited about the challenge. Any questions?"

How helpful can a guy like C Jonathan Goodwin be by giving you insight about their defense?

"He can offer some insights on it, but they're all on the film. That stuff is a little overrated. If you watch enough film, if you study enough film, you generally come to that conclusion anyway. A guy like Jonathan can confirm some things. Again, when a player usually is so focused on his job that I think it's overblown just how much a guy can crack a code, so to speak, on another team."

How has QB Colin Kaepernick changed since he's been here? Is he the same guy you saw when you got your hands on him July?

"Mechanically, yes, he's definitely improved. Obviously as a college football player, he operated more from a pistol formation. Taking a snap, executing the different drops, the different actions we use from under center, it's a whole new world for him. He's coming along mightily and continues to get better. As a person, he is a really solid guy coming in so he has maintained that solidness."

When you say mechanically, there was a lot made of his release coming out of college. Is that shortened now? Is it more abbreviated?

"I would say so. Again, on a release for a guy that's 6-5, you can probably get away with having a lower release. Most quarterbacks that are very productive in this league can utilize various arm angles to throw the football. I think the guy we're playing has demonstrated that a lot. He can throw the ball and release it however he needs to. That's something that you're always trying to put more clubs in your bag. Pass rush is involved, moving and throwing, those are real football things. The ability to throw under duress, move to your right and throw, move to your left and throw, getting your shoulders square and throw, not getting your shoulders square and throw. All those things are a work in progress. But Colin has done a phenomenal job thus far."

The Saints were awful in the first part of the season containing the run. Now it seems to be much better. What are they doing now that they weren't doing?

"I think it's just playing team defense. All the gaps are secured. Those guys do a really good job against the run. I think statistics are misleading. A lot of people have popped runs on them down by 30. What does that do? It inflates the stats. When they had to run, I didn't see those 30-yard runs. Their run defense is pretty stout. They've got some really good players. [DE Will Smith] 91, Smith, is an exceptional player. Very heady defensive end. The rookie [DE Cameron] Jordan, I coached against him in the big game last year, so I'm familiar with him. Then, the two guys inside [DT Aubrayo] Franklin and of course 92 [DT Shaun Rogers], really good space eaters which help free up [LB Jonathan] Vilma, who is a phenomenal sideline to sideline football player. They do everything they can, scheme-wise, to let him run to the football and he does a great job keying and diagnosing things pre-snap, making checks, etc. 41 [S Roman] Harper is very involved in their run support. He's a very good football player, especially when he's up and around the box. The corners have been up to the challenge. They play a lot of man and they've done a nice job. They're a very good defense."

Is there more on RB Frank Gore's plate this week just because of the blitzing and also the emphasis on time of possession and being able to move the chains in the running game?

"It's every week with Frank. Some teams you think are going to blitz a lot and they don't blitz a lot. Some teams don't blitz and then all of a sudden they decide they're going to blitz a lot. Frank's ready for anything. Frank is a consummate running back. He can do everything well. Whatever they choose to do, I'm sure Frank will be up for."

It's going to be a real challenge for Alex, too, kind of reading the blitzes and different looks that they give him.

"They are giving you a lot of looks now. They are very multiple. You go back over the course of two years and watch them, the volume is just expansive. So, yeah, that puts a lot of burden on the quarterback. Multiple looks disguised, all that stuff. That definitely is a calling card of the Saints defense."

S Colin Jones has been switched to the offensive side of the ball. What can he bring this team when he's on the field?

"Colin? He's shown up every day. He's fast, very fast, and physical. He plays in the pros just like he would in college. He's done a great job in special teams. Any way we could use Colin, he can help out. We were so depleted at the receiver position recently that we just moved him over and he jumped right in to our meetings."

Is that maybe a direct relation because TE Delanie Walker is out, too?

"I wouldn't say so, no. It was more of a wide receiver need."

Does he have promise as a receiver?

"We'll see. He's a really good football player. He's fast, takes instruction well. You explain something once to him and he gets it. He can make progress quickly with whatever you ask him to. He's pretty versatile."

What has worked so well for you guys late in games to pull off wins, especially some big comeback wins on the road? In the final four minutes?

"It's just a tribute to our players and their character and their preparation, being on to details during the week so that when you're in those clutch situations, you're able to execute. Really, it's guys doing their job under pressure. That's a reflection of being able to focus, knowing what you're doing, and having the confidence that you're going to get it done and the guy next to you is going to get it done. That's something that just grows and grows."

How has your work week impacted by the fact that you're facing a team that really doesn't have one or two huge sack artists, but 15 guys who have combined for 33 sacks. Does it change how you approach your week?

"I think you definitely have to put your time into all their pressure schemes, there's no question. If a team does 100% of something and if they blitz 50% of it, then 50% of your practice time needs to be dedicated to blitz. If they blitz 10%, then it's probably a little bit less. It's just more preparation for more than four people rushing. They do a very good job when they don't blitz. They've got some very unique defenses. If they're not pressuring, they'll give you a pressure look and all of a sudden they're playing off in soft zone coverage. They really present a lot of different challenges."

QB Alex Smith has always been known as a pretty sharp player. How does that does that translate to reading defenses and what's he's able to do at the line of scrimmage?

"I think a lot of what we do during the game is aim to deceive. A lot of what he says at the line of scrimmage, there's not really much going on there. It's making people thing we're doing something when we're not. But, there are times when we do that when we actually are doing something. Alex is a kind of guy that can handle both and does a really good job of it. He's extremely sharp when it comes down to the way he prepares, his will to succeed, his commitment to winning, his commitment to the team. In Alex's case, he's going to be in the office with us at night nailing things down. I told him next year or in the future, he might be able to get home and get to bed a little earlier if we ever get an offseason together. We can iron some of these things out then. Really, he's all in the details. He's on it. We're thankful for that."

WR Michael Crabtree says he's been truly healthy for the last six weeks or so. The foot is no longer an issue. Have you seen a different player since he's become 100 percent?

"Yeah, any time a player gets healthy they're going to play better. I think Michael's health has improved. He's really coming on. I really like Michael as a person and as a player. He's a great team guy. He's blocked as good as or better than any receiver that I've seen in the NFL this year. He's made plays when we've asked him to make plays. He continues to improve. He does whatever we ask him to do, whatever he needs to do to help the team he's doing. Expect great things from Michael."

Are there some specific areas where you have seen Michael Crabtree improve?

"Yeah, every area. Every area."

You were obviously interviewed for the Penn State job and been on that radar. Was that any distraction heading into the playoffs and heading into this game?

"No, thankfully it wasn't. It came out of nowhere. I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang. It's something that I was very honored to be considered and wish them the best in the future. The beauty of it was that there was no distraction. It was a four hour block of time and I compartmentalize very well. I put it in that box and never thought twice about it really."

Did you travel out there?

"I did not."

Did they say how you got on their radar when they called?

"They did but I want to keep that to myself."

Can you talk about TE Vernon Davis. Obviously he ended the season with one of his best games. He said he felt like he progressed during the season. Was that when you were finally avoiding the coverage on him or what would you say leads to his...

"Vernon is getting really getting comfortable in our system. You kind of notice it the past four or five weeks. It goes beyond the stat sheets at the end of the game. It's just how we do things, what we do, and his role in it. He's been a great team player all year long. He's helped our run game immensely. Helped us in the passing game. Made clutch, big plays when we needed them. Seattle comes to mind. Two plays on the boundary there, those toe-tappers he made were huge plays. The last game we played he made some really big plays. Vernon is really getting comfortable in what we're doing. I started to notice it about five weeks ago and every week it's gotten better since. Really pleased with how he's playing. He's playing at a high level right now."

Why do you think it took so long for him to feel comfortable?

"That's probably more on us than him. He's played well all year but he's just one step ahead of things now if that makes any sense. It's not that he wasn't totally comfortable with it, but we'll do things new every week. We'll change some things up and do things new. Now, it's just BAM. Once you say it to him, he totally sees the big picture of what you're doing. I think not having an offseason probably affected that."

Lots of times you'll hear that teams don't want to show too much in preseason against an opponent that they're going to play in the regular season. Obviously the preseason, this matchup probably never occurred to people. Can you take anything out of that preseason game? What they did against you specifically as opposed to other teams?

"I think it was very similar to what they do to other teams. It was great for us. It was a great practice for us. That's how we looked at it. I'm sure they slept well that night because they really got after us and they played well. It was very consistent with what they do as you look at them throughout the course of the season. The Saints, if they choose to be, can be one of the best blitzing teams in the league on any given week. They choose to do so more than others. You've got to be ready for them not blitzing, too. We saw that in that game. It wasn't like every play was a blitz, but most of them were. You've got to be ready for both. They're very good at it. What you're good at, you do. That's what they do. It was really, really good work for us. Like I said after the game, really glad that we were able to get that work in."