Will 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio go to the blitz more in Saturday’s playoff game against the New Orleans Saints?
Fangio has been known in the past for the variety and frequency of his blitz calls. This year, he has usually depended on his linemen, especially veteran defensive end Justin Smith, a Pro Bowl choice, and rookie Aldon Smith to apply pressure.
At a media session this week, Fangio noted that people think of Justin Smith in terms of his tenacity and ability to keep going throughout the game, but overlook his talent. “He has real talent, and when you combine that with the other things, this is what you get,” Fangio said.
Aldon Smith? “He’s what I hoped he’d be, but I couldn’t be sure he’d do it this year because it’s tough to go from being a defensive end in college to an outside linebacker,” Fangio said.
The Smiths may need help in this game though because New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was only sacked 24 times in the regular season in more than 700 pass plays that were called.
Obviously, Brees got great blocking up front, but he’s part of the equation, too. He’s played six years in the same system — he and coach Sean Payton both came to the Saints in 2006 — and he has a total understanding of what he needs to do. If you watch videos of Saints games, you’ll see Brees just slide a couple of yards one way or the other to find a clear passing lane downfield and avoid the rush.
The 49ers have to reduce Brees’ comfort level. Though sacks are good, it’s really more important for the 49ers to put enough pressure on Brees to make him throw a bit sooner than he wants and perhaps when he’s just slightly off balance.
And then, it will be up to the defensive backs.
Against the Detroit Lions in the first-round NFC playoff game, Brees threw three passes that could have been intercepted. The Lions dropped all three. No surprise, because the Lions are talented, but undisciplined. Think of them as the NFC’s version of the Raiders.
The 49ers defensive backs, though, are great ballhawks. When the ball is in the air, they go after it, and often make interceptions. While the offense is protecting the ball — Alex Smith had only five interceptions all season — the defense is taking it away. The 49ers led the NFL in turnover ratio at plus 28.
Special teams are also a part of this. Punter Andy Lee, another Pro Bowl choice, has continually put other teams in the hole, so the 49ers usually win the field-position battle.
But the defensive pass rush by the 49ers will be the key to their defense, which probably means more blitzing in this game.
When these two teams met in the exhibition season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams caught the 49ers by surprise with the number and variety of blitzes he used, unusual for an exhibition game.
This time, I think it will be the 49ers turn to surprise the Saints with blitz packages they haven’t shown all season, and that will be the key to a narrow win.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feeling the blitz
44 Sacks the 49ers totaled this season
24 Times Drew Brees was sacked this season
23 Interceptions by the 49ers defense this season
14 Interceptions Brees threw this season
18 Fumbles the 49ers forced this season
How we see it
The SF Examiner columnists offer their predictions for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game:
49ers 23, Saints 21
Look for the San Francisco defense to intercept Drew Brees twice, setting up short touchdown drives. David Akers kicks three field goals, the final one in the last minute.
Saints 24, 49ers 16
New Orleans has too much firepower, and in Drew Brees, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. The Niners are headed to a place among the elite, but need a year or two. They’re back, but not yet all the way back.
Saints 24, 49ers 21
The 49ers make it difficult for the Saints to execute their high-powered offense with a ball-control offense and a precise kicking game. They prove to the national audience that they belong at this level, but come up just short of playing the perfect game they need to play to win.
Saints 27, 49ers 20
The 49ers’ fierce front seven will prevent Drew Brees from putting up huge numbers, but New Orleans’ improved run defense will put Alex Smith into too many third-and-long situations to be successful against the blitz-happy Saints.