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49ers Up for Saints Attack


For those who relish strength on strength matchups, look no further than Candlestick Park on Saturday afternoon.

When the New Orleans Saints come marching into town, they'll do so with one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history.

But they haven't faced a defense like the 49ers just yet.

Though he watched quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints pile up an NFL playoff-record 626 yards from scrimmage last week, 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers is confident his team is up to the challenge.

"We've got a pretty good defense," Rogers said. "What we do well is something that we'll continue to stick to."

The 49ers defense has done well across the board this season. Starting up front with All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, the 49ers led the NFL in rush defense this year, giving up just 77.2 yards per game.

Saints coach Sean Payton praised the 49ers for their ability to shut down the run and make teams one-dimensional, but he's got an ace up his sleeve in that other dimension. Brees carried the vaunted New Orleans aerial attack to new heights this year, setting an NFL record with 5,476 passing yards while tossing 46 touchdowns against 14 interceptions.

"That's the most glaring thing when you look at this offense is they have weapons everywhere," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "It's hard to say, 'Hey if we stop this guy we'll win this game or we'll play great on defense.' They've got a lot of guys we've got to stop."

Stopping Brees has proved to be a tough task for opponents this season. With one of the quickest releases in the game and a bevy of talented skill players at his disposal, disrupting Brees will be a top priority for the 49ers defense.

Though Fangio didn't dial up a high volume of blitzes this year, the 49ers have consistently been able to collapse the pocket with the defensive front.

"As long as we continue to add pressure every play, it'll be a good matchup," said Ahmad Brooks, who set a new career high with 7.0 sacks this year. "We can't give him any time in the backfield to pick away at the defense."

Bringing heat on the quarterback has also paid dividends for the 49ers secondary this year. Though the 49ers are tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks this year, they're tied for second in the NFL with 23 interceptions.

Rogers and safety Dashon Goldson have each hauled in six picks, while cornerback Tarell Brown has added four more, including a pair against the Rams in the regular season finale. In all, the 49ers have created 23 turnovers in eight home games this season.

"Communication is the key," Brown said. "Especially for us on the back end. If we have communication, I think we're a flawless defense."

Of all the threats on the Saints offense, perhaps no matchup presents more problems than athletic tight end Jimmy Graham. In his first year as a starter, Graham racked up 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Brees also has the benefit of chemistry on his side, as he's thrown to receivers like Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson since joining New Orleans in 2006, while working with wideout Robert Meachem since the 2008 season.

Then there's the small, shifty Darren Sproles coming out of the backfield. Since joining the Saints via trade this offseason, Sproles has proven to be a sparkplug for the robust offense. He's accounted for more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage and nine offensive touchdowns this year. He's also picked up 86 receptions in the process.

"I can't believe they got him for the cheap price that they got him for replacing Reggie Bush," Fangio said of Sproles. "I think if it was the NBA, the commissioner might have stepped in and stopped that move."

For all the attention surrounding the Saints passing game, their rushing attack has quietly been among the league's elite as well. Using a rotation of tailbacks like Sproles, Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, New Orleans features the sixth-best rush offense in the NFL, averaging 132.9 yards per game. Ingram, however, was placed on Injured Reserve on Jan. 3.

And don't forget about the Saints offensive line, which features three Pro Bowlers in guards Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans and tackle Jermon Bushrod. Despite having 657 pass attempts this year, Brees was only sacked 24 times.

"When Sean Payton built that team, he started from the front," Pierre Garçon said. "You still see that line holding up for Drew Brees. You don't see too many times when he's getting hit."

When an irresistible force meets an unmovable object, sparks are bound to fly. But listening to defensive captain Joe Staley, it doesn't sound like the 49ers are in any mood to budge.

"Cruelty," Willis said. "It's not giving another person what they want. That's our mindset on defense, to go out and play with everything we have and not give the other team anything."

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