METAIRIE, La. -- Over the past eight years, few offenses in the NFL have attacked and overwhelmed their opponents quite like the New Orleans Saints.
And during that span, few defenses have attacked and overwhelmed the Saints quite like the San Francisco 49ers.
When they meet this Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the 49ers (6-3) will try to knock off the Saints (7-2) for the third consecutive year.
The 49ers’ physical, attacking defense has forced a combined seven turnovers and eight sacks in those two games (a 36-32 playoff victory after the 2011 season at San Francisco and a 31-21 regular-season victory last year in the Superdome).
“Yeah, we kinda owe them a couple knockdowns, you know what I’m saying?” said Saints guard Jahri Evans – a four-time first-team All-Pro, who isn’t used to seeing many defenses push the Saints around like that. “That’s how we feel as a team. And we know it’s gonna be physical. They know it’s gonna be physical. It’s been physical every time we play these guys. And those guys winning the last couple, we definitely feel like we gotta go out there and get the job done.”
Players like Evans and quarterback Drew Brees readily admit that the 49ers defense in the past two or three years has been as challenging as any opponent they’ve faced during the Brees/Sean Payton era.
No surprise there. The 49ers defense has been that way for the entire league in recent years as they’ve continued to add to their arsenal.
Last year, six of their defensive players were selected to the Pro Bowl (inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, outside linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson). And that list doesn’t include outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who finished strong last season to earn second-team All-Pro honors.
Goldson left in free agency this offseason, but the rest of the group is still wreaking as much havoc as usual.
“As good as they’ve ever been,” Brees said. “There’s an expectation level every time you play those guys. They’re extremely disciplined and very talented. A lot of individually great players. Obviously when you put them in there as a unit, they play very, very well together. There’s a definite style, a definite scheme that they just execute to perfection.
“I think the biggest areas, things that they kind of pride themselves on, is stopping the run and being physical [and] getting the ball out. They’re still [among the] tops in the league in turnovers. You’ve got a lot of ball hawks on that team.”
The Saints have still been able to put up some yards against the 49ers in their previous two matchups -- especially in that playoff game, when Brees nearly led the Saints to a classic rally with a total of 462 passing yards.
But the 49ers have destroyed the Saints with game-changing plays.
Whitner’s huge hit and forced fumble against running back Pierre Thomas on the Saints’ opening drive in that playoff game may have been the single most important play that prevented the Saints from reaching another Super Bowl that year (both because it prevented a touchdown and knocked Thomas out of the game with a concussion).
And last year, both Brooks and Whitner returned interceptions for touchdowns to pull away for a victory.
“Over the last couple years, they’ve been a defense that’s kind of had our number a little bit, whether it be big hits, just getting to the quarterback, stops here and there,” Evans said. “At the same time, we’ve kind of rallied against those guys a couple times too. But they were just making more plays, more plays, more plays. And if you get into a pass situation (trying to come from behind late), you’re playing into their hands a little bit.”
Brees said he isn’t motivated by revenge this week -- because the Saints don’t need any added motivation in such a critical matchup in this year’s NFC playoff race.
“It’s nothing about owing. It’s nothing about revenge. This is our next game,” Brees said. “It gets us to 8-2 [if we win], and it allows us the opportunity to beat a very, very good opponent. One that you have to sit here and say that there’s a great chance that they’re going to be in the postseason. I know that’s their expectation level. I’d be extremely shocked if they weren’t.
“When you have mirroring expectation levels, you just know the type of game it’s going to be.”