The San Francisco 49ers made a variety of players available to the media the last two days, and arguably the most informative was Justin Smith. Although the 49ers have a strict policy of not talking specifics about their own scheme and plans, Smith was able to provide all sorts of details about the Saints offense. It doesn't give us everything, but it is a great read to get some more ideas about the Saints.
Some of the more intriguing comments were about their two guards, Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. The two Saints guards were voted to the Pro Bowl and also selected to the All-Pro team. They surround Brian De La Puente, who hasn't exactly been an All Pro, but is having a solid season.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are huge cogs for the front seven, and against New Orleans it becomes all the more important given that strong interior. The 49ers will use a lot of nickel against the Saints. In the 49ers nickel, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald move into the two defensive tackle positions while Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks (occasionally Parys Haralson) man the edges. When the 49ers are in their 3-4, Isaac Sopoaga will be in for a huge battle. In both instances, the interior of the 49ers defensive line will face its toughest challenge of the season.
DT Justin Smith
Press Conference - January 11, 2012
San Francisco 49ers
Listen to Audio I Media Center
They have a couple Pro Bowl guards on their team. Are those the toughest two you're going to face this year do you think?
"Oh yeah, absolutely. Those guys are really good at what they do. They're big guys. They move their feet, all the things you want. I guess that's why they are what they are."
What distinguishes them from other guys you go up against?
"Just the way they move their hands, their hand placement, their foot quickness and being 6'5", 355, 360 doesn't hurt either. So, they just have everything you'd want in a big guard. Especially the way they pass protect, short set up front, let the tackles get beat around the edges, so [Saints QB Drew] Brees steps up on the pocket."
Justin, what's the biggest challenge of this offense? They're just so well-rounded.
"Yeah, I think one thing they don't get enough press on is their run game. A lot of their passes are set up because they can run the ball. So, I think a big challenge for us will be stopping the run, taking away some of those chipping routes, where they just kind of set down after they leak out of max protection, and pressure Drew."
Your coach has said you're his selection for team MVP. Do you feel this is the best season you've had in your career?
"I don't really look into season to season I guess. I think we've had a good team, good run at it so far. And like I said, just locker room talk is we've had a good season, this and that, but we've got to go out and win some games in the playoffs and we're starting with the Saints. So, that's really our focus."
Justin, shorter quarterbacks are supposed to have a tough time finding passing lanes and getting balls batted down. What makes him so effective in being able to sustain pressure and find those lanes?
"He looks at where the linemen are lined up prior to the snap. He knows where his B-gap windows are going to be prior to when he snaps the ball. So, he's just a really small guy the way he attacks the pass rush. He knows where that open B-gap window is going to be and he baits the outside rushers by dropping back and then he steps up and slides to where he needs to be for his open receivers."
You've had a pretty well-known B-gap block down this year. Is that something that you guys are conscious of trying to get outside those gaps?
‘Yeah, this game's going to be big about our pressure in making sure both three techniques don't get outside, just don't get outside pass rush and open those lanes up for him because he can step up and carve you up pretty good."
Justin, have you had a chance to see any film from the Saints game against the Rams?
That was the one time that Brees was really pressured this year, did not have a real efficient game by his standards. Have you learned anything from that film?
"Yeah, pressuring him is key. They hit him multiple times, sacked him multiple times. Pretty much after that game, they really went to that max up, let's make sure we keep Drew clean so we can run the offense. And we're going to have to overcome that. We're going to have to make sure we can still get pressure on him without committing to the blitz a whole lot. So, to me that's the key to the game defensively."
Justin, is Saints RB Darren Sproles a frustrating running back for a defense?
"He's just a guy that, you saw against Detroit, both the running backs, even after contact, still spinning, making the extra yards. [He's a] real small guy, but extremely quick, can make guys miss. They do a lot of angle, a lot of swing passes with him and then they have him angle in when you think you got a beat on him. So, they move him around, do lots of different things with him. He helps max protect and leaks out and causes matchup problems trying to open-field tackle him as well."
Does any offense motion as much as this one does that you've faced this season?
"Yeah, I'd say so. I don't think their motioning shifts are really what define them. It's the way they keep you guessing with their play calling. They have a good run to pass ratio. I think everybody looks at them as just a strictly run and shoot passing team from the outside, but they run the ball quite a bit and they're pretty effective at it."
What do they do from their base personnel? People kind of think of them as a spread-you-out team, but they've played it a lot in kind of regular personnel too, right?
"Yeah, they play a lot of tight formations. It's not just five wide all the time. They get [TE Jimmy] Graham in there on the line of scrimmage. Do a lot of passing from there. So, they make it look like regular personnel and then it ends up being three or four outs. So, they do a good job of mix and matching the personnel and disguising the formations."
How much do you trust your instincts in a game like this going against their offense?
"It always comes down to fundamentals. It's always going to come down to blocking, tackling and catching the football. So, they're not Houdini out there. They can't run one way and go the other. So, if we just go out there, play sound football, we'll be all right."
What's the mood in this locker room after sitting around here for almost two weeks?
"We're antsy. It feels like you've almost been off for a month. So, we're ready to go and should be fresh."
Speaking of being fresh, what did you do last week to make sure your body is right for this game?
"I think, just like anything, time cures all. They played. We didn't play. People say, oh you can be a little rusty because you didn't play, but it's do or die time and I think we feel pretty good."