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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Double Coverage: Saints or 49ers?

By Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas

Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton
Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton will go head-to-head on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
OK, so the New Orleans Saints' and San Francisco 49ers' head coaches won't be bonding over the phone this week.

No problem.

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and I are here to set the record straight heading into the Saints-49ers divisional playoff game Saturday.

We'll get right to the pressing issues, starting with those preseason blitzing shenanigans 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh brushed off Monday.

Mike Sando: I've got no reason to think the Saints' radio voice, Jim Henderson, was anything but truthful when he said Sean Payton ordered extra blitzes against the 49ers in the preseason opener after Harbaugh supposedly failed to call Payton before the game. I've also never heard of protocol requiring coaches to work out a "gentleman's agreement" regarding how to approach preseason games.

Pat Yasinskas: We're talking about two coaches with very strong personalities. Payton and Harbaugh both are extremely competitive and you can include New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in that category. The Saints blitzed more than any team during the regular season. But there's no doubt all the blitzing in the preseason game was a bit over the top. There's also no doubt Harbaugh and the 49ers will remember that and that could provide some extra motivation. I expect both teams to be very feisty. That's not a bad thing for the Saints. Their defense hasn't been great and the extra edginess could help them.

Mike Sando: Shall we step outside, you and me? I kid, but count me among those questioning the Saints' performance outdoors. I realize New Orleans has won plenty on the road, but the Saints averaged only 23.8 points in their four most recent outdoor games (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville). They averaged 41.1 points at home during the regular season and nearly as much in all their 11 indoor games. What's the truth about the Saints' offense and how well it travels?

Pat Yasinskas: The numbers don't lie. Tennessee was a decent team. The Bucs had not yet fallen apart when they beat the Saints. The level of competition was fairly high in those games. But the Panthers and Jaguars were not good teams. That shows there definitely is something to the perception the Saints aren't the same team outdoors. Obviously, Drew Brees and the passing game are best suited for a dome. But I think the one thing that's overlooked, and something that could be a big factor, is the New Orleans running game. The Saints run the ball well and have gotten better in that area as the season has gone on. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory bring a nice mix of speed and power. I think we could see more of the Saints' running game than usual in this one.

Mike Sando: The 49ers will welcome the challenge. Arian Foster, Felix Jones, LeGarrette Blount, Jahvid Best and Montario Hardesty are among the NFL backs the 49ers have injured since preseason. They roughed up LeSean McCoy, too. Unless Marshawn Lynch suddenly shows up in this game — and, hey, the Saints wouldn't want to see him, either — the 49ers' run defense should be OK. I still think getting to Brees is the key. But as John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Brees has completed a league-high 52.1 percent of his passes over the past two seasons while throwing under duress.

Pat Yasinskas: Although Brees is good against the blitz, believe it or not, he is human. He can make mistakes when pressured. He threw 22 interceptions in 2010. The 49ers' best chance to slow Brees is to pressure him.

Alex Smith
The Saints should have their hands full preparing for the likes of 49ers QB Alex Smith.
Mike Sando: Two contributors to the NFC West blog, ArmedWithWings and ncannelora, suggested the 49ers’ All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, would give San Francisco the personnel and flexibility to defend Brees’ passes to tight end Jimmy Graham and the Saints’ running backs. That would separate the 49ers from just about every Saints opponent this season.

Pat Yasinskas: The Saints are going to score some points, even against good defenses. But I'm thinking outside the box on this game. I'm thinking the New Orleans defense could determine this game. This is not a defense that's going to shut anyone down. But Williams' defenses are built around the theory that coming up with turnovers is the key. That was a strength in the 2009 season, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints have not been as opportunistic this season or in 2010. If they're going to win, that needs to change. If the Saints can come up with a turnover or two, they'll win. If they don't, they could be in trouble.

Mike Sando: San Francisco has committed only 10 turnovers all season, fewest in the league. The 49ers also led the NFL in turnovers forced. I wonder, though, if the 49ers will have to take more chances offensively to keep pace with the Saints. And as Scott Kacsmar noted recently, teams with historically strong turnover numbers during the regular season have often made quick postseason exits. In fact, the five teams with the fewest regular-season turnovers since 2008 have gone 0-5 in the playoffs, committing 17 turnovers in those games. The 49ers cannot follow that pattern. Conventional wisdom says they need to run the ball with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. That is true. But keep an eye on Alex Smith. He has quietly relished proving the doubters wrong this season. He has only five interceptions all season and has played a role in five fourth-quarter comeback victories.

Pat Yasinskas: We must be fairly persuasive guys. We've managed to talk each other into thinking the other teams can win. Should be a good one Saturday. See you at the 'Stick.