Niners prepare for game of wits in playoff showdown with the Saints
The San Francisco 49ers have to like the situation they're in: playing at home on Saturday, coming off a two-week stretch in which they were able to get healthy while studying a team that doesn't play nearly as well outdoors as indoors. And they have to like it because their defense doesn't have to blitz to get pressure on Drew Brees in the divisional round matchup -- meaning they can play seven men back to clog the passing lanes of the most efficient and accurate quarterback in NFL history.
"What you have to do against the Saints," safety Donte' Whitner told me after the Niners' last full practice of the week Thursday, "is think the game through. This is not a game where you just react. In certain games, you're better off just reacting. But in this game, the message all week has been think it through, because they're going to show you things on offense that make you think they're going to do one thing when that's not what they're doing. Drew Brees is tremendous at that."
That's the danger playing Brees, and if the Niners can conquer that and not get frustrated by the way his eyes play the field, San Francisco will have a good chance to win at Candlestick. But that's much, much, much easier said than done.
"Drew makes it very, very difficult to get his keys," said Whitner. "He can confuse you with his snap count. Then his eyes -- he manipulates the defense with his eyes better than anyone in football.''
High praise. Whitner's a guy who's faced Tom Brady eight times. But this isn't just about frustrating and hurrying Brees. It's about two other facets of the Saints on offense: defusing Darren Sproles and making sure the Niners play the run as consistently as they played it all season.
Sproles is a singular player in these playoffs. No team has a weapon like him. His quickness and moves in tight quarters make him seem like he's playing the game at a different speed than everyone else. Who do you cover him with? Couple him with one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, Jimmy Graham, and the matchup nightmares could doom San Francisco.
The 49ers have the two fastest inside 'backers playing in tandem in the league right now, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. But consistently they wouldn't be a match for Sproles. They might be able to handle Graham for a portion of the game, but the pressure will be on the secondary to handle both of them, particularly Sproles.
When the story of this game is written, I have a feeling it will be a good one for the Niners if they hold Sproles to, say, eight touches from scrimmage for 40 yards and no touchdowns. But that's going to be tough to do. Last week, he touched it 14 times from scrimmage in the rout of the Lions, for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Anytime Sproles has gotten in even a little bit of open space this season for the Saints, he's made the defense pay. Last week against the Lions, he ran through defenders for a 17-yard touchdown as if they were standing still.
But where the Niners differ from other teams is they can get pressure with four up front, particularly with the Missouri Smiths -- veteran defensive end Justin and situational rusher Aldon, the rookie, both from Missouri. "If you don't have to bring the blitzes against this team, you know you match up well against them," said Whitner.
If San Francisco puts a cap on Sproles and Graham, and holds them, perhaps, to a combined one touchdown and 100 yards, it'll be a great day for the Niners. But a lot of teams have had similar plans this season -- and the Saints are 14-3.
Good show this week with Houston GM Rick Smith, on building the Texans, and weekly guest Bob McGinn, on how the Packers overcame a weak early start by Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay to gain trust in him. The podcast is on