San Francisco 49ers: Drew Brees

One San Francisco 49er had one more long trip to make after a rugged playoff run.

Eric Reid is glad he did. The 49ers’ first-round pick was the team’s lone representative (the team’s eight original Pro Bowl selections didn’t play because of injuries) at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu on Sunday. The safety was on Jerry Rice’s winning team. Team Rice beat Deion Sanders’ team, 22-21.

“It was a cool experience to end my rookie season,” Reid said. “It wasn’t bad to be drafted to the greatest player of all time, either.”

Reid was surprised that he was drafted by Rice fairly early in the process. The humble rookie expected to be an unknown at the Pro Bowl. Yet, he was pleasantly surprised when several players congratulated him on an impressive rookie season.

“It was surprising,” Reid said. “I thought everyone was going to be like ‘who is this kid?’”

A highlight of the week for Reid was getting to know retiring Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez and spending time with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. Brees gave Reid an autographed helmet. It was quite the thrill for the Louisiana native.

“I’m sure my family is going to try to get it,” Reid said with a laugh. “But they can’t have it.”

49ers third-quarter checkpoint

December, 3, 2013
The third quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' regular season is complete. Here are looks at the first and second quarters. Now let’s look at some key developments as the defending NFC champions sit at 8-4:

Story of the quarter: Beating the bad. Losing to the good. The third quarter has been a microcosm of the 49ers’ season. They started the quarter losing to top teams, Carolina and New Orleans, by a total of four points. The 49ers then blew away losing teams, Washington and St. Louis. The 49ers are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 2-4 against teams with winning records. When they win, the 49ers do their job. They have seven double-digit wins, which is tied for the league high with Denver.

Offensive MVP of the quarter: Kicker Phil Dawson. Anytime the kicker is an MVP, it means it is a team that needs to finish some drives. That is certainly the case for the 49ers, whose offense got into a funk in the losses to the Panthers and Saints. But Dawson has made sure the 49ers have scored. He has made 16 straight field goals and he made 10 in the past four games. Dawson was signed in the offseason because the 49ers wanted more consistency than they got form David Akers. It’s been a move that’s worked beautifully.

Defensive player of the quarter: Linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The San Francisco defense has been brilliant in the quarter. It played winning football even in the two losses. We could go a lot of ways here, but Brooks gets the nod. He was all over the field against New Orleans (more about that later) and Washington. Brooks is a solid complementary piece on a unit of stars. But in this quarter he stood out.

Rookie of the quarter: Safety Eric Reid. The first-round draft pick has been a steady force all season. The thing that sticks out about him is he is polished and professional. He’s looked like a five-year pro since Week 1. He was well worth moving up from No. 31 to No. 18 in the draft. He’s been an upgrade over Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa Bay in free agency.

Disappointment of the quarter: Controversial call at New Orleans. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than his neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, and New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The Saints won it with another field goal as time expired. The 49ers still feel like they should have won the game and be 9-3. It won’t change, but the play still hovers in Santa Clara, Calif. I think it has fueled the team and it could end up being a positive.

Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: Offensive health. The 49ers' receivers are now finally healthy. Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13 and the offense instantly improved. However, the 49ers’ offense is not out of the woods. It seems like standout left tackle Joe Staley might be out for a few games with a knee sprain. Right guard Alex Boone will play left tackle and youngster Joe Looney will start for the first time. The 49ers are already playing without starting guard Mike Iupati. He may miss another week with a knee sprain. This offense has never been at full strength this season and it looks like it still may be a while.

Fearless prediction for the fourth quarter: The 49ers will make the playoffs. The 49ers are currently on pace to be the No. 6 seed in the NFC. If I had to guess, I’d say the 49ers will finish 11-5. That’s a heck of a season. But the truth is, if the 49ers want to get back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three straight weeks on the road in January.
Ahmad Brooks did just about everything the NFL can expect from a modern pass-rusher Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On one of the game's most important plays, Brooks approached Drew Brees with the combination of ferocity and caution that should have allowed him to navigate the league's extensive rules to protect quarterbacks.

Brooks, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker, blew past New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief and aligned his head behind Brees. To initiate contact, Brooks slammed his right shoulder into Brees' right shoulder, and to wrap up, he extended his right arm across Brees' chest.

Brees' upper body snapped back, including his head in a whip-like fashion. In the process, Brooks' arm slid slightly in the direction of Brees' neck.

The ruling from referee Tony Corrente: Personal foul against Brooks, whose slight slip of the arm had violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) -- which was amended last spring to specify that a penalty for a hit to the neck of a passer could be called even if the initial contact began below it. The penalty reversed a turnover and gave the Saints 15 yards on the way to a game-tying field goal. Brooks had hit neither Brees' head nor his knees, but he and the 49ers still feel victim to a technicality within the NFL rule labyrinth.

Did the play signify a turning point in the league's efforts to protect quarterbacks? Has it gone too far with its rules in the pocket? Is it unfairly penalizing hits like Brooks' when most quarterback injuries this season have resulted from scrambles or designed runs?

Speaking to reporters later, Brooks said he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and added: "That's just how football is played."

The NFL confirmed that sentiment, fining Brooks $15,575 for the play.

Brees, meanwhile, implied the penalty was justified because it was violent and left him with a bloody mouth.

"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees told reporters. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"

Brees' reaction enraged earlier generations of NFL players, who saw nothing but a standard football play. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio that the penalty was an example of how "the NFL product sucks" and suggested that "roughhousing" is now illegal in the NFL.

Dilfer called Brees a "dear friend" but added: "You're not preventing Drew Brees from getting a concussion by making that call. You're preventing him from getting a bloody lip.

"I was insulted when he came into the presser and said, 'I expected to get the flag thrown.' I can't tell you how many retired quarterbacks texted me … We played a game where we had to stay in the pocket and get hit in the face. We're not saying we're as good as Drew Brees. We're not saying he's soft. We're not saying the guys he is playing with are soft. But part of the badge of honor of playing quarterback in the NFL was standing in there and taking shots in the face and throwing a 20-yard dig route. That's what separated you from the other guys. Now that's just not part of the game."

Has the NFL gone too far? Has it substantively changed the game even as quarterbacks find new ways to get injured? ESPN's NFL Nation asked quarterbacks and defensive players to address the topic.

"I think the most important thing is that the league is protecting all players and making sure of the players' safety. The quarterbacks are in one of the most vulnerable positions and whatnot so they definitely deserve that. And that's what it really comes down to, player safety."

-- Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, as told to Lions reporter Michael Rothstein

"It makes it extremely difficult for pass-rushers and I think safeties. Especially I'd say guys going after the quarterback, because there's so many compromising positions that guys are in. You know, you're battling a guy, and all of a sudden the quarterback's there. And a lot of times, they're swiping at the ball and they catch a part of your head. I mean, there's things like that that are, 'OK, that's just a glancing thing. That was unintentional. No big deal.' I think it's the 'lead with the head' or 'explode up through your head/chin area' [that they're trying to prevent]. And again, I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all. I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that, and again it's in real time. You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the ...' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"

-- New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, as told to Saints reporter Mike Triplett

"Quarterbacks are the bread and butter of the league. I guess you have protect your investment. It's definitely not easy, but I guess you have to play within the rules. As a pass-rusher, I saw nothing wrong with [Brooks' hit on Brees], but there was a flag and whatever else came along with that, it did. It's tough, but we to play within the confines of the rules."

-- Indianapolis Colts LB Robert Mathis, as told to Colts reporter Mike Wells

"No. I mean, I'm the wrong guy to ask, but no. They're trying to protect all the players, I think. No one wants to see injuries, no matter what position you play. But no team wants to see its quarterback get hurt. That's the way it goes. I'm sure San Francisco doesn't want to see their quarterback get hit either. Most defenses won't like it, but I'm sure every coach, every GM and every owner will appreciate what they're doing to protect quarterbacks."

-- New York Giants QB Eli Manning, as told to Giants reporter Dan Graziano

"I feel there's a strike zone running from the shoulders to the knees for a quarterback. If you go down to the knees of a quarterback, you're going to get called. You go up to the head, you're going to get called. It's tough. You're playing full speed and at the last second we're trying to avoid a tackle and duck and move. Sometimes, things happen."

-- Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith, as told to Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher

"Yup. They are. They definitely are doing way too much, going way overboard to protect quarterbacks, and it's crazy, because we can't play the way we want to play. There's nothing you can do. You can change the way you play, but they're just going to make another rule."

-- New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, as told to Giants reporter Dan Graziano

"Yes. I think if you look at the play, I didn't see any helmet-to-helmet [contact]. I'm not an expert on the rulebook. But from looking at the rulebook, you're not supposed to hit the quarterback with your helmet or lunge or torpedo. But I didn't see any of that happen on that play. And of course as a defensive person, they do overdo it when it comes to quarterbacks. They're playing football just like we are. I always think about it: When am I defenseless? I don't think I'm ever defenseless on the field. But you can't hit [quarterbacks] too low, you can't hit him too high, you can't hit him too hard, don't slam him too hard, don't touch his helmet, don't hit his arm. Play football."

-- Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake as told to Dolphins reporter James Walker
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Ahmad Brooks has said thanks-but-no-thanks to Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi.

The San Francisco 49ers linebacker has informed the two former star linebackers and current ESPN analysts that he will not accept their offer to help with his fine. Brooks was fined $15,750 by the NFL for a questionable hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in the final minutes of the Saints’ victory on Sunday.

Before the fine was levied, Lewis and Bruschi had said they would pitch in because they thought the hit was clean. A source close to Brooks told me that Brooks appreciates the offers but wants to handle the fine himself. He is appealing it.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted that Brooks has asked Lewis and Bruschi to remain advocates for defensive players in a league where the offense, particularly quarterbacks, gets extra protection.

Brooks left the 49ers’ facility Wednesday without talking to the media. After the game Sunday he said he didn’t feel like he did anything wrong.

Ahmad Brooks' fine is excessive

November, 20, 2013

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- On Tuesday, I wrote about the NFL’s issue on whether to fine San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for a controversial -- and game-changing -- hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the NFL fined Brooks $15,750 for the hit.

During Sunday's game, the 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, as New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

The fine was expected but nearly $16,000 seems excessive. That hit was anything out of the ordinary. The fine should have been less than half of what it is, in my opinion. I get the reason. There is a fine schedule. But the league could have cut the guy a break.

It seems to me the league levied the hefty fine to back itself. The message? See, the infraction was serious.

What did we expect? The league was going to fine Brooks. If it hadn't, it would have come off as admitting the ref made a mistake by calling a penalty in the first place. That wasn’t going to happen. The NFL has been saying all week it was the right call. And fines always accompany penalties where a quarterback gets hit.

So, the league was being consistent. That’s why I knew the fine was coming. But almost 16 grand? Come on.

Don’t expect this to go away quietly. ESPN analysts and former NFL linebackers Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi vowed on the air to help Brooks with the fine. I doubt they will let it go away.

The bottom line? The NFL made its decision and too much money will be paid by someone.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With the play still a hot-button subject, the NFL must now decide whether to fine San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks for his controversial hit Sunday on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

It was one of the more controversial calls of the NFL season so far. Any potential fine is sure to come under close scrutiny.

It also puts the NFL under pressure.

The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than the neck.

The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, as New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The 49ers likely would have won the game had the penalty not been called.

There have been many opinions on the call, so any action by the league will be watched closely this week.

Personal foul penalties on quarterback hits usually result in a fine against the penalized player, so Brooks is probably in line to be docked. But that could create more controversy and be considered piling on.

On the flip side, if Brooks isn't fined, it could be construed as a message from the league that it was the wrong call. That could stir up a hornets' nest that the NFL doesn't want.

Further putting a spotlight on the issue, ESPN analysts and former NFL linebackers Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi vowed on the air to help Brooks with the fine if the league docks him. Yes, this story has legs.

In the end, my guess is that the league will fine Brooks and hope the story goes away quickly. But it could take the story to the next level.

Brooks-Brees fallout continues

November, 19, 2013
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Everyone has an opinion on the controversial hit 49ers lineback Ahmad Brooks put on Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The play has been one of the lingering storylines of Week 11.

Here’s the backdrop: The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go. But Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Brees' neck. The 15-yard penalty and gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than neck. New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The 49ers likely would have won the game had the penalty not been called.

Many observers thought the officials blew the call and Brooks’ hit on Brees was clean. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said coaches downgrade players for penalties. Harbaugh said Brooks was not downgraded.

If Brooks is fined by the NFL for the hit this week, he may get some financial relief. ESPN analyst and former hard-hitting NFL linebacker, Ray Lewis said on the air he would pay for half of Brooks’ fine because he felt strongly it was a clean hit. I’m sure Brooks would grant Lewis his wish.

Meanwhile, the officials and league may have sided with New Orleans on the call, but much of the United States did not. In an ESPN SportsNation poll, only two states voted that they believe the officials made the right call -- Louisiana and neighboring Mississippi.

While readers across of the nation have spoken, the NFL’s voice is the only one that matters.

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 11

November, 18, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 loss at New Orleans:

Costly penalties: The 49ers committed two colossal penalties in the final few minutes that turned a 20-17 lead into a loss. First, there was some controversy. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than the neck. New Orleans ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. After the 49ers went three-and-out on the ensuing series, San Francisco special teams ace Kassim Osgood blew into New Orleans punt returner Darren Sproles, who had called for a fair catch at the Saints’ 25. Osgood was called for a 15-yard penalty with 1:48 to go. It gave the Saints good field position and led to the winning field goal. The 49ers complained about the call on Brooks, but it was close and a superstar quarterback like Brees is going to get that call at home.

Slow offensive start: The 49ers had just 18 yards of offense in the first quarter. They had 45 yards in the second half of a loss to Carolina last week. The 49ers didn’t get their first first down at New Orleans until the second quarter. The 49ers did make some progress as the game went on, but they had five three-and-outs, including one on their final drive of the game.

Bad challenges: It wasn’t the smoothest game for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. He swung and missed on two first-half challenges. The Saints ended up scoring a touchdown on the San Francisco defense when Harbaugh had his first unsuccessful challenge. His other failed challenge didn’t matter. The 49ers scored a touchdown on the next play.

Injuries mount: The 49ers have dealt with a lot of injuries this season, and Sunday was no different. Guard Mike Iupati had to be carted to the locker room with a left knee injury. He left the stadium on crutches and had a brace on his knee. Adam Snyder took his place. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown had a rib injury. The 49ers are deep at cornerback, so if both players are out for an extended time, Iupati’s loss might hurt the team more.
Jim HarbaughJohn David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter riding a five-game win streak to a 6-2 record, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have dropped two close games in a row.
NEW ORLEANS -- If the San Francisco 49ers are going back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three playoff games on the road.

That was the situation going into Sunday’s game at New Orleans and it remained that way after the 49ers lost their second straight playoff-like game.

There’s no doubt the 49ers were a discouraged, emotionally spent bunch as they prepared for a long, unpleasant flight home. San Francisco tamed the great New Orleans offense in its own habitat, but still saw a winnable game turn into a 23-20 defeat when the Saints kicked a short field goal as time expired. New Orleans scored three field goals in the final 7:50 to take the victory away from the 49ers, who made two crucial 15-yard penalties to assist the Saints in the final six points.

Last week the 49ers lost, 10-9, at home to Carolina in another game they could have easily won with the right break or key play.

The result? San Francisco staggering into the second half of the season after finishing the first half as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. After starting 1-2, the 49ers ripped off five straight blowout wins. Suddenly, they are 6-4 and find themselves in a fight for the last playoff spot.

San Francisco can forget about winning the NFC West. Seattle improved to 10-1 on Sunday and the 49ers trail the Seahawks by 3 ½ games. The race is over. If the 49ers are getting back to the playoffs it will be as one of two wild-card entries.

And there’s competition for the spots. Carolina is 6-3 heading into a Monday night game against New England and owns the tiebreaker over the 49ers. Chicago and Detroit are tied for first place in the NFC North at 6-4. Arizona is also 6-4.

Because of the turn of events, there is certainly pressure the 49ers didn’t feel two weeks ago during their bye week. At 6-2, they looked like a postseason shoo-in. But after losses to two playoff-quality teams, the 49ers are no less of a contender.

“At the end of the day, it’s just one loss,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. “We’ve got six weeks to play for. We know the ultimate goal is to win as many games as you can and get into the playoffs.”

In my opinion, this is still a playoff team. Losses to the Panthers and the Saints didn’t change my mind. The 49ers look worthy of the postseason.

The good news for San Francisco is the schedule eases up. The 49ers play at Washington on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12 and then come home to host St. Louis before playing Seattle. The only other team with a winning record remaining on San Francisco’s schedule is Arizona on the road in Week 17.

Thus, the 49ers are still in good shape. Yes, observers will talk about how they can’t beat a good team. San Francisco is now 2-4 against teams with winning records and 4-0 against teams with losing records.

There’s no doubt the 49ers have some areas to fix to be able to win tight games down the stretch. A lack of discipline bit San Francisco late as the Saints converted two field goals in the final 2:06 to complete a comeback after the 49ers took a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter.

There was a controversial moment late. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than the neck. New Orleans ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Brooks and the 49ers were not happy with the call. Brees, on the other hand, said he fully expected it to be a penalty because he said he was hit in the neck.

After the 49ers went three-and-out on the ensuing series -- punctuated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick running out of bounds to stop the clock on third down, giving the Saints more time on their final drive -- San Francisco special-teams ace Kassim Osgood blew into New Orleans punt returner Darren Sproles, who had called for a fair catch, at the Saints’ 25. Osgood was called for a 15-yard penalty with 1:48 to go. It gave the Saints good field position and led to the winning field goal.

Brees doesn’t need much help. Giving him two 15-yard penalties with the game on the line is no way to live.

But this loss wasn’t the fault of the 49ers’ defense. It held the Saints’ offense to two touchdowns. It did enough to win, just like against Carolina.

Last week’s loss was squarely on the 49ers’ offense, which managed just three field goals against Carolina after scoring 31 points or more per game during San Francisco's five-game winning streak. On Sunday, the 49ers’ offense started slowly again. It had 18 yards in the first quarter (it had 45 yards in the second half last week) and the 49ers didn’t convert a first down until early in the second quarter. The unit did pick up, though, and kept pace with the Saints.

Still, Kaepernick struggled at times. He was 1-for-7 on passes of 15 yards or more. On the final drive, the 49ers had little spark.

“We made it difficult on ourselves at times,” Kaepernick said. “We didn’t execute like we should have.”

Kaepernick and the offense need some fine-tuning down the stretch. But the truth is, this isn’t a team in a deep-rooted funk. It has had some misfires at bad times against two good teams. But the season is far from out of the 49ers’ grasp. Coach Jim Harbaugh senses that.

"I thought they played their hearts out,” Harbaugh said of his team. “Keep fighting.”

If the 49ers pay attention to the details, they should get the opportunity to fight into the postseason.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed in the locker room after the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Controversy: The 49ers appeared to get the ball after a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Drew Brees' shoulder more than his neck, which was the call. The Saints ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Of course it was a topic of conversation in the San Francisco locker room. Many 49ers thought the officials made the wrong call, but were not surprised because of the emphasis on safety to quarterbacks.

“That was the game, basically,” Brooks said. “At the last second, he ducked his head."

Iupati hurt: Standout guard Mike Iupati suffered a left knee injury and was taken to the locker room on a cart, where he later left walking on crutches. It has not been determined how severe the injury is, but Iupati has been dealing with nagging knee issues. Iupati would clearly be missed if he has to sit out for an extended period of time. Adam Snyder took his place.

Harbaugh doesn't relent: Yes, the 49ers have lost two in a row and are now 6-4 and in a fight for a wild-card spot. But coach Jim Harbaugh focused on the positives for a team that has lost the past two games by a combined four points. "I thought they played their hearts out. Keep fighting ... I thought they left it all on the field.”

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

November, 17, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 loss against the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: The 49ers lost their second straight heartbreaking game. Last week, they lost at home to Carolina by one point. The two losses come after the 49ers had a five-game win streak. San Francisco is now 6-4 and in a second-place tie with Arizona in the NFC West. Seattle is 10-1. The division race is over. The 49ers are still in the playoff hunt, but these losses will sting. Like last week, this is a game the 49ers easily could have won. San Francisco played at a high level in a defeat.

Controversial call: The 49ers appeared to get the ball after a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared that Brooks hit Drew Brees’ shoulder. The Saints ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Stock watch: 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin had his best game since Week 1 against Green Bay when he had 13 catches. Boldin finished with six catches for 56 yards Sunday. He converted on third downs three times on one second-half drive. It was a reminder of how important Boldin is to this offense and how much quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs help.

More injuries: The 49ers have been dealing with injuries all season and that trend didn’t change Sunday. Cornerback Tarell Brown (rib) and guard Mike Iupati (knee) were both carted off the field and were unable to return. No further information was immediately available. However, it appears Iupati’s injury could be more serious than Brown’s. He is a key part of the offensive line. He was replaced by Adam Snyder, who is capable. But Iupati’s loss would be felt it he misses extended time.

What’s next: The 49ers have another long road trip on tap. They play at Washington on Monday night. The Redskins are struggling at 3-7.
Darren Sproles and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIThe Saints and Darren Sproles, left, will try to control the ball against Patrick Willis and the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.

San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:

Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.

Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.

Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?

Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?

Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.

This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?

Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?

Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.

How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?

Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.


Saints owe 49ers 'a couple knockdowns'

November, 14, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargePierre Thomas
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesThe 49ers knocked out Pierre Thomas early in a divisional round playoff game in 2012.
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 defenses push the Saints around. “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 havoc.

“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 (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.”

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick No. 11 when ranking the 32 projected NFL starting quarterbacks for 2013.

Jaworski now says he thinks Kaepernick can become an all-time great. Jaworski, speaking in the video atop this item, pointed to Kaepernick's arm strength, accuracy and mobility. He also pointed to the coaching Kaepernick is receiving from Jim Harbaugh and staff.

Early returns are indeed promising. Kaepernick ranked second to Peyton Manning in Total QBR as a starter for the regular season and playoffs. Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Eli Manning rounded out the top 10.

Smith's presence on that list stands out, because he hadn't produced at that level previously. I do think the offense in San Francisco forces teams to account for the run, setting up quarterbacks for success on early downs. That is when Smith in particular flourished. As Jaworski points out, there is no denying the physical ability Kaepernick brings to the position. Put him in the 49ers' system and the potential is there, no doubt.

Now that we've begun work on that Hall of Fame bust, let's revisit what Jaworski said when ranking Kaepernick 11th among starters earlier this offseason:
"Normally 10 NFL starts is not enough for me to evaluate a player so highly, but this kid has special talent, is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with a power arm and outstanding athleticism.

"Remember this? It was a signature play of the 2012 season. It was Kaepernick’s first touchdown run against Green Bay that really caught my attention. You see the press man coverage with two deep safeties. It turned out the Packers doubled Michael Crabtree. But the point is the same. This is what mobile, athletic quarterbacks can do versus man-to-man coverage, especially on third down. It forces defenses to rethink their concepts, it limits their tactical options.

"I remember Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears. It was immediately evident that he gave the 49ers every dimension in the passing game. And I love the way Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman set up Kaepernick with defined reads through the use of shifts and formations.

"Watch what happened here from the coaching tape. All that pre-snap movement was designed to get Vernon Davis matched on linebacker Lance Briggs. As favorable as the matchup was, that was still not an easy throw.

"That’s why Kaepernick has a chance to be very special. He has a complete throwing skill-set with a powerful arm that I absolutely put at gun level. His ball comes out with a lot of energy and velocity. And Kaepernick can drive the ball down the field, on the move, with accuracy.

"Kaepernick is one of the four or five most physically talented quarterbacks in the entire NFL. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts to the loss of Michael Crabtree, but the elite skill-set is still there."