49ers face ultimate test against Saints

BY foxsports • January 12, 2012

Every week, the experts of FOX NFL Sunday reveal their observations and opinions as they prepare for football's top-rated pregame telecast.

We'll share some of the highlights from Curt, Terry, Howie, Jimmy and Michael grabbed from their weekly conference call with insider John Czarnecki.

Czar: The 49ers are back in the playoffs after a long drought, but what are their chances against the high-flying Saints?

Jimmy Johnson: First of all, Jim Harbaugh and his staff deserve a lot of credit for turning this franchise around. I can’t recall a first-year coach having this big of an impact. He instilled his players with confidence and a winning attitude, while Vic Fangio has done a great job with the defense. They're not real complicated on either side of the ball, but the big thing for me is they don’t make many mistakes. They have momentum-changers on offense and may have the league’s best kicking game. The 49ers don’t beat themselves.

Terry Bradshaw: This is always the best weekend for NFL football. There are four big games and I have to think there will be two upsets this weekend. The 49ers could be one of them.

JJ: I spent some time with Sean Payton this weekend, and his team is playing on a real high right now. The Saints are playing with such confidence, and I think it’s going to be awfully hard to slow them down.

Howie Long: In talking with Fangio and some of their defensive stars, I kept asking them for a number. How many points can they give up and still win? Justin Smith said 17. That’s a pretty low number against such an explosive team like the Saints.

Michael Strahan: I think that’s the general number a player would give you. A more realistic number is 24 going against Drew Brees and such a multi-faceted offense. But I don’t see how they keep the Saints to such a low number.

TB: The entire key is how the 49ers handle the Saints’ blitz. Gregg Williams uses it more than 50 percent of the time, which is the most in the league. Alex Smith has got to be accurate on the deep ball. The 49ers know they are going to be blitzed, and they better come up with a new formation and isolate some guys on the outside that Alex can find quickly. I’m not as concerned about Alex’s numbers because if he can hit a few deep passes it won’t matter a bit. I remember a Super Bowl against Dallas and Chuck Noll told me to screw the percentages and keep throwing it deep. And he was absolutely right. All it took was hitting a couple of those deep throws to win the game.

MS: Terry may be onto something. I know everyone doesn’t want to believe that the Saints’ three road losses mean that much because they have won nine straight. But they lost to some bad teams on the road this season and Candlestick is a tough place to play.

HL: What the 49ers must be concerned with is how New Orleans changed its protection scheme after losing to the Rams and giving up six sacks. The Saints are going to have to deal with that. They are going to have to bring some pressure with four so they can play coverage. The Lions tried the same approach but did a poor job of tackling in the open field. The Lions should have had some three-and-outs and simply didn’t make tackles.

TB: The Saints even struggled mightily against Carolina this season. I’m not sold on the Saints even though I’ve always liked them. And this won’t be a fast track for them. Like I said on the show last weekend, it’s one of two stadiums below sea level in the NFL.

JJ: When I spoke with Payton, he didn’t think the 49ers would water down the field like you said on the show, but he was listening. He said he plans to take his team out to Candlestick on Friday around game time so they can check out the sunlight and also figure out what kind of cleats they plan to wear in the game.

TB: For all the attention on the 49ers this season, I find it pretty interesting that Coach Harbaugh doesn’t talk to anybody.

JJ: Once he said no to TV interviews, he’s simply sticking with it now and doesn’t want to change it during this crucial part of the season. He also doesn’t want to take the focus off of his players.

Czar: Tim Tebow is going to New England for a rematch of a regular-season game. What kind of defense will he see from the Patriots?

JJ: I can’t believe how poorly the Steelers defended against him last Sunday. I guess defensive coordinators don’t watch our show. I showed them all four weeks ago how to defend Tebow and that option offense.

TB: The Steelers had their safeties cheating up all the time, trying to stop the run. On almost all of his big throws, Tebow never had to worry about a safety over the top. He was simply passing to one guy who was covered by a cornerback. That’s pretty simple when you don’t have to worry about coverages in the secondary.

MS: I remember talking about Ryan Mundy playing safety for Ryan Clark, the Steelers player who had to skip the Denver game because he can’t play in the altitude. It looked like the Broncos took advantage of Clark being out of the game.

JJ: You can bet that Belichick knows how to line up his players against Tebow. They will get pressure, but mostly they will keep their safeties deep. When going against the option, you can’t have runners or receivers breaking the line of scrimmage with no defender back. The Patriots will be prepared for Tebow and Denver’s running game.

TB: What worries me is that New England has lost its last two home playoff games in 2009 and 2010. I’m not saying they are going to lose, but I’m sure Belichick has reminded his team about those losses and that they better control the home field.

Czar: Do most of you believe the Giants gained some confidence against the Packers with how they played in Week 13, despite losing in overtime?

MS: I totally agree. When the Giants played the Packers, Green Bay was still undefeated and they pushed the Packers to the limit. The Giants walked away from that game probably feeling they didn’t play their best ball and still came so close. They know now that they can hang with those guys. They shouldn’t have any fear of them.

HL: There is some strange stuff happening here. That loss to the Packers was the same score the Giants lost to the Patriots, 38-35, back in 2007 at the end of regular season. And we all know how that turned out for the Giants.

TB: I know the Giants are playing great defense, but let’s not forget what the Packers did this season. Home-field advantage is huge in the playoffs. The home fans must be worth three points for the Packers. Green Bay has all its offensive linemen back, plus Greg Jennings is also ready to go. There isn’t a quarterback playing this weekend who is cooler in the pocket than Aaron Rodgers.



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