The New Orleans Saints might have the best offense in the playoffs, even though they were outscored by 13 points by the Green Bay Packers during the regular season. When you combine the record-setting year by Drew Brees with a much stronger rushing attack than what the Packers feature, the Saints’ dynamic yet balanced offense is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. And with the 49ers featuring perhaps the best defense in the NFL this year, the battle between those two units is what most observers will talk about leading up to Saturday.
With the Saints turning average NFL games into Arena-esque shootouts on the regular, their defense has been ignored to a certain extent. And with an offense that scores 45 points without blinking, it’s hard to blame anyone for forgetting that defense even exists in the NFL.
Saints’ championship template: defense is overrated
Plus, the Saints already won a Super Bowl with a crappy defense in 2009. Sure, they were an opportunistic bunch that accumulated 39 takeaways during the regular season and 8 during the playoffs (including an amazing 5 turnovers collected against the Minnesota Favres). But while the offense ranked first in both points and yards in ’09, the Saints’ defense finished 20th and 25th in those categories respectively.
Last year the Saints weren’t nearly as productive on offense as they were in 2009 (or 2011), but their defense ranked 7th in points allowed and 4th in yards surrendered during the regular season. However, that didn’t matter when they gave up 41 points and one legendary run to Marshawn Lynch in that wacky playoff upset loss in Seattle.
The 2011 Saints aren’t doing so badly in terms of points allowed (21.7 ppg, 13th in the NFL), but they’ve given up their fair share of yards (9th-most in the NFL at 368.4 ypg) and finished 31st in takeaways with only 16. No more Darren Sharper, no more multiple-takeaway games, it would appear.
New Orleans’ offense scores so many points that their opponents are forced to pass, pass and pass some more to keep/catch up. The Saints finished the regular season ranked 30th in passing yards allowed and 28th in interceptions. Teams ran against the Saints less than against any other team (2 fewer attempts than vs. the Niners), although New Orleans gave up 4.95 yards per carry, worse than every team in the league besides the Raiders, Lions and Buccaneers.
The worst defense in the NFL?
Ah yes, the Bucs. An embarrassment to the game, as they gave up before the season was even halfway over. But according to Pro Football Focus, Tampa Bay (the only team to allow more than 30 ppg) wasn’t the worst defense in the NFL during the 2011 regular season, although it was close. Tampa was bad, with an overall score of -123.5 (the 49ers were far and away the best defense according to PFF, with an overall score of 200.4 — the Ravens came in second at 159.6). But the Saints finished with the lowest overall score: -124.9.
The Saints’ run defense (with a score of 3.1) wasn’t all that bad, according to PFF. But their pass coverage and pass rush were terrible (the Saints had the worst pass rush in the league, with a score of -70.8). Now you know why they blitz all the time. Unlike the 49ers, the Saints can’t rush three or four guys … because if they did, the opposing quarterback would have about 10 seconds to throw.
I’ll put it another way: it’s never a good sign when a defensive back (Roman Harper) is tied for the team lead in sacks with 7.
The Saints didn’t look much different against the Lions on Saturday, as Matthew Stafford was able to sit back and pass for 380 yards and a few touchdowns. Stafford was sacked zero times, hit 6 times and pressured on 5 occasions … compare that to Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 5 times, hit on 3 occasions and pressured 12 times.
Playoffs = Crab season?
Most people are pointing to Frank Gore as the key offensive player for the 49ers, and that may end up being the case. It sure would be nice if the 49ers could control the line of scrimmage (and the clock) with a tidy 25-carry, 125 yard performance from Gore.
But that seems too obvious, so I’m going to look to the outside. If I’m Michael Crabtree, I can’t wait for Saturday after seeing Calvin Johnson catch 12 passes for 211 yards and a couple scores. Not that Crabtree is a comparable player to Megatron (the most fearsome WR in the game), but Crabtree has 41 receptions, 539 yards and 3 TD in his last seven games. Not video game numbers, but that translates to a 94 catches, 1,232 yards and 7 TD over 16 games, and after a slow start due to injury it’s not incorrect to assume that Crabtree’s performance over the last two months is sustainable — not a fluke.
The Saints, like everyone else the 49ers have faced, are going to come to San Francisco expecting a steady diet of Gore with a little Kendall Hunter as garnish (and no, that doesn’t mean I think Gore and Hunter should receive the nickname of “steak and parsley”). But Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have experimented in terms of the vertical game for the last couple months and have had two weeks to prepare. With the Saints sure to blitz with regularity, Gore and Hunter will be just as important in terms of pass-blocking and, to a lesser extent, catching screen passes.
While it isn’t clear if Delanie Walker will be available (Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t rule Walker out for Saturday, but that could be gamesmanship as much as anything else), Vernon Davis also has a chance to shine against the Saints’ mediocre linebackers. Davis has been on fire of late as well, finishing with 18 catches and 244 yards in the last three games.
The Saints will do what they always do: throw the ball all over the field (because even though they have a diverse and impressive group of running backs, they won’t spend much time trying to rush against the 49ers’ brick wall). However, the Niners might surprise people by testing the Saints’ secondary and focusing on winning the turnover battle — in other words, the same strategy that led New Orleans to their first and only Super Bowl win.