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Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Personnel report: Saints vs. Aldon Smith

By Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Aldon Smith, the San Francisco 49ers' 14-sack rookie pass-rusher, expects his playing time to increase Saturday against the New Orleans Saints' record-setting offense.

This makes sense on the surface because the Saints are such a prolific passing team. Smith plays on passing downs.

Case closed, right? Not quite.

The Saints' ground game is also strong. New Orleans uses quite a few tighter formations featuring fewer than three wide receivers. And so I wondered whether the Saints might limit Smith's snaps by playing with fewer than three wide receivers on the field at a time. For a team with strong receiving options at running back and tight end, this can be a good way to keep the ground game viable without sacrificing much in the passing game.

Smith played not quite half of the 49ers' snaps this season, coming onto the field against pass-oriented personnel. He'll be on the field automatically if the Saints play three or more wideouts. He generally would not play as much against heavier personnel.

New Orleans, armed with a dynamic receiving tight end in Jimmy Graham, used fewer than three wide receivers on 57 percent of offensive snaps this season. That was the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The 49ers rarely strayed from base personnel when opponents played with fewer than three wide receivers this season. They did so only 25 of 422 times outside short-yardage situations. That included nine of 46 times against Dallas in Week 2.

The Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens are the only 49ers opponents to date showing up on the chart ranking teams by highest percentage of plays featuring fewer than three wideouts. Smith hit season lows for snaps (16) and playing time (27.1 percent) against Baltimore. He played 25 snaps (35.7 percent) against the Cowboys, before he had established himself as a pass-rushing force.

The Saints rushed for 2,041 yards during the regular season, the sixth-highest total in the NFL. They gained 1,489 of that with fewer than three wide receivers on the field and about 80 percent of the 1,489 against base defenses.

It's impossible to know in advance what wrinkles these teams will unveil Saturday. The 49ers will want to pressure Drew Brees up the middle whether or not Smith is on the field. As defensive lineman Justin Smith put it Wednesday, the Saints quarterback loves stepping up in the pocket after outside pass-rushers have flown past him.

How frequently might Aldon Smith be one of them?