Saints run defense to be tested by 49ers
One of Sean Payton's offseason priorities was shoring up the Saints' run defense.
Two of the biggest moves designed to address that weakness were the acquisitions of defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin in free agency.
Now one of the biggest tests of the Saints' changes comes in a high-stakes showdown Saturday, when New Orleans (14-3) travels to San Francisco (13-3) for a second-round playoff game.
Led by Frank Gore, the 49ers averaged 128 yards rushing per game this season, which ranked eighth in the league. So Payton anticipates a heavy workload for Franklin and Rogers.
''Those guys will have a big role in the game,'' the coach said. ''There are a number of things that (the 49ers) do offensively, but they've been very consistent at being physical up front and blocking with power and finding ways to create big plays in the running game, and then off of that play-action pass.''
Franklin, who is 6-foot-1, 317 pounds, left what had been a losing 49ers team in hopes of landing with a winner in New Orleans. The 6-foot-4, 350-pound Rogers, who had never appeared in a playoff game before this season, had the same goal in mind when he left Cleveland to play in the Big Easy.
Because of the Niners' quick turnaround under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, Franklin finds himself needing to come through with a big performance on his old home field to help his new team advance to the NFC title game.
Franklin dismissed the notion that there was any special meaning to his return to San Francisco.
''It's the next team that we're playing and it happens to be my old team,'' Franklin said. ''I came here to win a Super Bowl and these guys are the next team that we play on our route to the Super Bowl. That what makes it big to me.''
Franklin has been starting much of the season alongside Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the Saints' 4-3 front, with Rogers and Tom Johnson rotating in.
The Saints ranked a respectable 12th against the run during the regular season, allowing just under 109 yards per game.
One reason the Saints' run defense has been good statistically is New Orleans often had big leads thanks to a prolific offense that scored about 34 points a game this season, and that forced opponents to pass in an effort to catch up.
''Obviously if we get up on a team, they're going to have to pass. But I think we've played pretty good run defense outside of that,'' linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. ''It's definitely a match of two wills in this week's game, but what else can you expect? What else can you ask for?''
Harbaugh said he wasn't basing his evaluation of the Saints' run defense on statistics, but what he saw when he studied video.
''They're an effective team stopping the run,'' Harbaugh said. ''It's evidenced on the tape.''
The Saints struggled against the run earlier this season, giving up more than 100 yards in eight of their first 10 games, but started to improve after yielding 138 yards on the ground in a victory at Atlanta.
''Ever since the Atlanta game ... we took it on ourselves as a defensive unit'' to play better against the run, Franklin said. ''We had coaches evaluate us and we just tried to improve every week.''
New Orleans then gave up an average of 72 yards on the ground during their next five games.
In a first-round playoff victory over Detroit last weekend, New Orleans gave up only 32 yards rushing. However, the Lions abandoned the run in the second half as they began to fall behind by multiple scores, finishing with only 10 carries.
''Detroit really didn't try to run it on us,'' safety Roman Harper said. ''We're really going to need Jon Vilma to show up and lead us this week and match Frank Gore. We're going to need our D-line to show up.''