The Saints say they must account for 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis at all times.
The 49ers will be in rare company Saturday when they host the Saints in San Francisco’s first playoff game since January of 2003.
Oddsmakers have made the Saints a 3½-point favorite, meaning the Niners are just the second home underdog in a divisional playoff game since 1982, reports Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
So, despite being the NFC’s No. 2 seed, despite their 13-3 record and despite having the home-field advantage, the 49ers still aren’t the people’s (or gamblers’) choice to beat a Saints team that’s been a scoring juggernaut against the rest of the NFL.
However, though New Orleans’ offense recently has looked unstoppable, the Niners may have a few things in their advantage Saturday.
For one, the Saints will be playing on the road, where they are 5-3 this season (as opposed to undefeated at home).
For another, the Niners play a 3-4 defense, a scheme that in the past has given Drew Brees & Co. more trouble than the more traditional 4-3 alignment.
San Francisco has the No. 1 defense in the NFL against the rush, and its front seven is big, strong and mobile. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are incredibly active and outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson – and pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith – play well in the scheme.
Saints guard Carl Nicks looks at the 49ers defense and says it can pose problems for the Saints’ sixth-ranked running game.
“The linebackers are running around scot free, especially two guys on the outside – and then the two All-Pros in the middle,” Nicks told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “It just brings a lot of different variations to how they can fill up holes, so you’ve really got to game plan and scheme correctly for those guys.”
Saints head coach Sean Payton adds that even more troublesome can be the way the 49ers safeties can make in impact in the 3-4. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson have played well against the run all season.
“I think the better question really is the deployment of the back end,” Payton told the Times-Picayune. “Is there a safety down in that front or is there a safety back in that front if we’re talking about just running the football? They do a good job with that front. They just disguise a couple of looks.”
Playing against a 3-4 team, the Saints say, means different preparations. Spacing on offense is different, as are blocking assignments for the line.
Early this season, the Saints put up big numbers against the Packers and Texans, two 3-4 teams. But over the past two seasons, New Orleans has just a .500 record against teams that run a base 3-4 defense.
Saints tackle Zach Strief, though, says the alignment may not mean as much as the players in it. He says San Francisco’s defense is a talented group. Strief says Willis and Bowman deserve their accolades.
“There are a lot of challenges,” Strief told the Times-Picayune. “At the end of the day, it’s all about putting hats on hats, but it’s harder to put hats on them than some teams.”
The other thing in favor of the 49ers Saturday is history.
Though the 49ers are just the second home team in a divisional-round game to be listed as an underdog, they know what happened in that 1996 matchup.
Dallas went into Carolina a 3 ½-point choice over the Panthers – just like the Saints -- but lost 26-17.