Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer talks about why the Saints have had some early struggles and some of the key aspects to getting a victory on Sunday.**
The Saints have struggled some offensively this year. I think the biggest difference between this season and last is that the offense was much more explosive last year. I think the style of offense is much different because of the changes in personnel, particularly the loss of Deuce McAllister.
What Sean Payton was able to do last year with McAllister was pound the ball inside with him, have a change of pace with Reggie Bush, and then go play action pass with a seven step drop, which is a deep route. They haven't been able to do that this year because they haven't had the same running game. Now they are relying more on the short passing game, which is why you're not seeing the big numbers by the Saints wide receivers or Drew Brees.
Brees hasn't been sacked much, and one of the reasons is because he is throwing a lot of shorter routes. He's throwing a lot of balls to Bush, but he has also found a comfort zone throwing over the middle to former 49ers tight end Eric Johnson, which is what Johnson does best. As a former college wideout, Eric's strength is in the receiving department and he's got great hands. He worked awfully hard on becoming a better blocker and he got a little bigger, stronger, and improved his technique as a blocker while he was here, but his strength has and always will be at receiver. Johnson is very astute in hooking up between the two linebackers or finding a hole in the zone, and he leads the team in receiving yards and is second behind Bush in catches.
Marques Colston, along with Johnson and Bush, are only averaging about 7.5 yards a catch combined. When your leading receivers are only averaging that, you are going to have a drop off. They have had a ton of dropped passes this year. One of the biggest dropped ball contributors has been Devery Henderson. He was a big play guy for them last year and he is averaging about 18 yards a catch, but has only caught 9 passes and has dropped just as many.
Like his receivers, Brees isn't playing as well as he was either during his 2006 record-breaking year. He has 10 interceptions so far, which is one less than the 11 he had all of last year. He has twice as many interceptions as touchdowns so far.
Not having McAllister has really hurt their running game because Deuce was a power running back. They ran a lot of counter plays between the tackles and a lot of lead plays. You can't do that with Bush. They are using more toss plays and more outside stuff which is not as effective if you can't pound the ball inside. Bush is only averaging about 3.5 yards a carry. His fumbling has been an issue early on and was in college. He has a lot of people up in arms in New Orleans because he is doing the Reggie Bush thing just like he does on punt returns. A punt returner can afford to stutter step and change directions but as a back in the NFL, you can't make as many guys miss as you can in college. There is so much more speed and athleticism in the NFL.
Another blow to their offense has been their kicker. Last year they had John Carney who was a fixture in New Orleans and was Mr. Reliable. Right now their kicker, Olindo Mare, was one of the few free agent moves they made all year. He is 3-7 for field goals, which is not what you need from your kicker.
Defensively, the Saints run defense has been great. They play a lot of eight men in the box, and one of the big reasons their run defense is doing so well is Hollis Thomas, who really wasn't even starting at the beginning of the year. Kendrick Clancy injured his toe, so Thomas has been in there ever since. Thomas is a run stopper, which is what he was known for when he was in Philadelphia.
While it could be another rough going for Frank Gore and the running attack, the 49ers should have an easier time passing the ball.
New Orleans has not been putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They only have 9 sacks on the year, which is comforting for the 49ers because Will Smith and Charles Grant were the guys that were all over the 49ers when we played them last year. One of the biggest reasons they won last year was because of their pass rush. Right now Smith and Grant have 3 sacks combined. These are guys who talked about having 20 sacks between them this year.
I personally think things settled down offensively for the 49ers when Adam Snyder and David Baas went in the game. Head coach Mike Nolan hasn't made any changes to the starting line, but he did say he would continue to get those guys work. Although the offensive line is probably the most important position on a team in terms of continuity and being able to work together, it might be time to see what group of five guys works best together.
I think it will also help to have Alex Smith back because he offers more mobility. I'd like to see more half rolls and bootlegs with Alex because the Saints are going to be bringing pressure since they dominated us up front last year.
The Saints secondary has given up big yardage on the year, and one of the big reasons they're struggling is the lack of a pass rush by the front four. When you don't get that, the offense has the opportunity to sit there and pick a defense apart. They did step it up against Seattle by using a lot of blitzes, which happens when a team is desperate for a win. They aren't getting it done by sitting back in coverage, so they roll the dice by just going after people. They came up with 5 sacks in their first win versus Seattle after having one sack prior to that game. They managed another three sacks in the Atlanta game. An advantage is that the 49ers are used to that with teams putting eight men in the box and having man to man coverage in the secondary. The 49ers receivers have to win the battle in man to man coverage as I have been saying all year.
Last year the Saints handed the 49ers a 34-10 defeat. The Saints have the same offensive and defensive coordinators so the 49ers should have some familiarity heading into this game, but obviously there are some significant changes to the personnel and scheme of New Orleans' offense. Again the reason they had success last year was having that dominant power running game inside and having the change of pace with Bush. From a defensive perspective, that aspect changes everything, because the Saints have had to be a different team this year. In addition to the loss of McAllister, last year each receiver had a 40, 50, 60, or 80 yard pass. The protection was there, and the receivers were catching balls. That hasn't been the case yet this season.
The 49ers might gain an edge this week because I think it's tougher for teams to travel and have success. This will be the second west coast trip for the Saints in the last three weeks. Ultimately though, I think this game will be won up front. If the 49ers can win their offensive and defensive line battles against the Saints, the 49ers will win this game.