All week the 49ers and Saints have been answering questions about an exhibition game they played against each other in August.
Though both teams went on to have 13-3 seasons and will meet Saturday at Candlestick Park in an NFC division-round playoff game, they haven’t met since August. So that game -- a 24-3 Saints victory -- has become the only measuring stick to compare the teams. Specifically, how the 49ers will counter the New Orleans blitz.
In that August game, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams let his players lose, sacking 49ers quarterbacks six times in the first half. San Francisco’s offense looked overwhelmed.
Now, months later, the 49ers are saying they know what to expect. Williams is known for blitzing, and brings defenders from everywhere. Safety Roman Harper, for instance, leads the team with 7½ sacks and 14 Saints have at least one.
“Gregg blitzes like crazy,” 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin – a former Saint – told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Adds 49ers tackle Joe Staley: “They blitz in a variety of different ways. It’s not just a couple of blitzes that are going to be coming.”
Yet this isn’t the same 49ers team the Saints saw in August. That team was just coming together under a new coaching staff after a lockout. This team has proven what it can do, running the football and playing mistake-free, while relying on its defense and special teams.
As Branch notes, the Saints blitzing scheme – which resulted in 33 sacks and nine interceptions – also gave up a league-high 14 passing plays of 40 yards or more.
“Any time a team is blitzing heavily, you’re going to look to hit them with those big pass plays down the field and try to get them out of their blitz,” 49ers receiver Kyle Williams told Branch.
Plus, Niners QB Alex Smith has been one of the best in the NFL at beating the blitz. He ranks third this season, behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, with a quarterback rating of 96.3 when opponents blitz, completing 90-of-152 throws for 1,097 yards and eight TDs vs. one interception.
“Obviously, you’ve got some chances to make plays,” Smith says.
Plus, the 49ers can counter with one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks to keep the Saints defense honest.
Also, Smith says he won’t be tempted to try to get into a passing contest with the Saints’ Drew Brees. Brees may have set an NFL record for passing yards this season with 5,476 – more than 2,000 yards more than Smith threw for this season – but Smith knows a 49ers win Saturday doesn’t depend on him throwing for 400 yards.
If San Francisco plays its game, he says, the Niners can win. Run the football, beat the blitz, don't turn the ball over and play good defense. That's the formula.
“There are a lot of different ways to win in this league,” Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “We’re not going to be somebody we’re not. We’re going to continue to do what we do.”