Most of us remember the 49ers from the playoff game last year, but let me get straight to the point in emphasizing that this is by far the best defense the Saints will play all year. The 49ers are an elite defense (2nd in the NFL only behind the Steelers) and an elite rushing team (1st in the NFL) behind Frank Gore. You can't really get more opposite than the Saints, who are methodical passing team with a leaky defense. There are some mismatches to exploit, though, and the good news is this game is indoors in New Orleans on turf - which favors the Saints' style of play. Here's how the 49ers look:
The 49ers are going with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback who looked incredibly impressive last week. Kaepernick has much better arm strength than Alex Smith, which I'm sure was the appeal in starting him for Harbaugh because it gives them a new dimension. Kaepernick can make all the throws and we'll have to bank on his inexperience and untested decision making to cave in his first start on the road. The 49ers mostly run with Frank Gore, and they do so in dominant fashion (5.3 yards per carry), but Kendall Hunter has given the 9ers a nice of change of pace as well. The 49ers offensive line, in my opinion, is the best in the NFL. They are strong, athletic, very big and physical. The Saints' front seven is going to take a pounding in this game. Ex-Saints Jonathan Goodwin is currently playing the best football of his career, but make no mistake Joe Staley is the anchor. Will Smith should get dominated by Staley, who is as good of a left tackle as there is in the game. Anthony Davis is another mammoth lineman for them, and Mike Iupati has played at an extremely high level as well. This offensive line puts the Saints to shame. The only negative is they don't move as well laterally, so they can get beat from time to time in pass protection - which is their weakness. The Saints could have used Junior Galette in this game, but we'll have to hope Martez Wilson can expose their size with his quickness in passing situations. This game is tailor made for Broderick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks to show off their size and interior prowess. As far as playmakers, we all know Vernon Davis too well by now. The mismatch he creates against Curtis Lofton and Roman Harper is substantial. They also have Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and the resurrected Randy Moss. This is a scary offense for the Saints to stop. Bunkley and Lofton are the keys in controlling the line of scrimmage and tackling. They're going to have to have monster games.
The 49ers are terrifying rushing off the edge with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Regardless of whether Zach Strief starts at less than 100% or Bryce Harris replaces him, blocking Aldon Smith is a nightmare scenario. The Smiths usually rush from the same side (left), but last week they had them rushing opposite and I wouldn't be surprised if they did that again this week with the Saints ailing at right tackle. I have a feeling Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas will stay in often to help. Jermon Bushrod will have his hands full as well, especially if they both come from the left. The 49ers did a very good job last time these two teams played of generating huge pressure off the edges forcing Brees to step up in the pocket, then blitzing up the middle to get repeated hits on the Saints trigger man. I can promise you they will continue that. Patrick Willis is the star player of this defense and he's a tackling machine. I think he's arguably the best linebacker in football. NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks are excellent linebackers as well, making this arguably the best front 7 in football. While the 49ers' DBs are good, I would say relatively speaking there is a drop off. Tarell Brown is a decent cover band and Carlos Rogers is a veteran, but both can be exposed by the Saints' superior receivers IF Drew Brees has time. Donte Whitner reminds me a little bit of Roman Harper, but worse, and the Saints can expose him if he's covering Jimmy Graham down the seam. That's probably the matchup the Saints try to exploit repeatedly. Scoring won't be easy, but at least the game is on turf. Establishing the run game is going to be of utmost importance in this one because the Saints have to keep the 49ers pass rush honest.
The 49ers sent both of their specialists to the Pro Bowl last year in David Akers and Andy Lee. Lee is as good as Thomas Morstead and continues to play well. Akers is a perfect 11 for 11 inside 40 yards this year, but has struggled a little on 40+ kicks as he's 7 for 13 (2 misses from 50+, 4 misses from 40-49). So it hasn't been as stellar of a year for Akers who might be struggling just a little with confidence at the moment on longer attempts. Still, he's very good. Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams trade off return duties and both are explosive return men. That's yet another dimension the Saints will have to pay attention to, but as usual I'm sure Morstead will but up for the task.