GAMEDAY Niner fans! And not just any game-day, playoff game-day! The San Francisco Forty Niners take on the New Orleans Saints today in the 49ers first playoff appearance since 2002. By now you’ve read hundreds of game previews, poured over tons of analysis and inside opinions. But to be as prepared for a playoff game as you need to be, you’ve got to do a little extra homework.
And that’s where I come in. It’s time to go Inside The Numbers, Playoff style!
To the untrained eye the stats tell us a lot of what we already know. The Saints have an awesome offense and the 49ers have a great defense. To me, the numbers tell a story of 2 teams that employed a completely different strategy to get to its 13-3 record. Drew Brees compiled a record setting season passing for 5,476 yards. Compare that to Alex Smith’s 3,144 and it looks like the 49ers can’t pass. But that’s not the case at all, sure the Saints totaled over 2,300 yards of passing offense than did the 49ers. Let’s look at why: First the Saints threw the ball 662 times this year while the 49ers only attempted just 451 passes. For all those throws, the Saints avg per pass attempt is only 0.2 yards greater than the Niners (11.7 vs 11.5).
I’m diving into these numbers neck deck after the break
A big part of the 49ers strategy is protecting the football on offense, and taking it away on defense. The 49ers led the NFL in total takeaways with 38 and turnover ratio with a +28 (1.8/g). Of the 9ers 38 takeaways they produced 23 interceptions which tied them for second in the league. The low risk offense gave the ball away a league low 10 times in 2011. The 49ers will be betting on winning the turnover battle today, its something they must do in order to beat the Saints. Brees threw 14 INTs this year (0.875/game) to Smith’s 5 (a mere 0.312) odds favor the 49ers in possibly the most crucial part of the game.
Another thing people tend to forget is that the Saints can really run the football. In fact, they ran for more rushing yards this season than the 49ers (2,177-2,044). They also averaged more yards per attempt at nearly 5 yards per carry 4.9 to the 49ers 4.1 per rush. The Saints come at you with a three headed running attack of Darren Sproles (603 yards, 6.9/rush), Pierre Thomas (562/5.1) and Chris Ivory (374/4.7). Of the Saints games I’ve watched this season, the running game has a whole lot to do with the threat of the pass. Teams often stack the box against a run heavy team like the 49ers. Against the Saints, teams have made themselves vulnerable to the rush by settling into a lot of nickle packages. 3-4 teams have suffered by dropping their outside linebackers into coverage where Jimmy Graham has feasted to the tune of 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
I don’t see this being a problem for Vic Fangio’s 49er defense though and here’s why. The 49ers do not allow teams to pull them out of their scheme. Rarely, if ever, will you see the 49ers go out of base set unless down and distance dictate so. They stay in their sets and rely on their defensive line to set the tone, linebackers to make plays and defensive backs to cover people. The 49ers also rarely rush more than 4, relying on Aldon Smith 14 sacks and Justin Smith 7.5 sacks to create enough pressure on the opposing QB without compromising coverage personnel.
The 49ers have by far the leagues best rushing defense. Allowing a mere 77.2 yards per game on the ground. The 49ers also ran off a historic 31 game streak of not allowing an opposing running back into the end zone. With the leagues best ILB dio in All Pro’s Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, don’t expect the Saints to be doing much running at Candlestick today.
And then the homefield advantage: New Orleans averaged 41.1 points per game at home this season and 38 points per game in 11 total indoor games. The Saints played five outdoor games and averaged 23.8 points per game in the four most recent ones. Which team will we see today in the confines of windy Candlestick?
If you listen to the critics you would think the 49ers offense stinks. In reality, it doesn’t, it’s just old school. In fact, the 49ers scored 380 points (23.8/g), 11th of 32 in the NFL. But they only allowed 229 points (14.3/g), 2nd. Good for a whopping differential of 151 points (9.4/g), 4th. Everyone wants to talk about yards, avg yards, long plays, deep passes etc. All that really matters, how many points you score and how many you give up. These are 2 completely different teams, Saints fans want to laugh at Alex Smith because they have Drew Brees? Show me your Patrick Willis, I say.