Niners have come a long way from the Big Easy

The 49ers are not the same disjointed, overmatched team the Saints saw five months ago in the preseason opener for both teams in New Orleans. Far from it. That 49ers team was just getting to know each other and its coaches and still was learning plays and schemes. The Niners the Saints will meet Saturday in the NFC playoff semifinals have come a long way since that August trip to the Big Easy.

The offense was stagnant, Alex Smith was ineffective and the offensive line was completely overmatched.

Few would have thought that the 49ers team that opened the Jim Harbaugh era with an exhibition dud at New Orleans would be playing the Saints five months later with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.

"It's not even the same team,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ''There's so much more confidence. We're so much more sure of ourselves and the schemes and what we're doing.''

There were few signs of the remarkable turnaround Harbaugh has engineered in San Francisco in that 24-3 loss at the Superdome as the 49ers were completely overwhelmed by New Orleans' heavy blitz package.

With no offseason because of the lockout and just two weeks of practice to implement a new system, San Francisco failed to get a first down on its first four drives as the first-team offense never got started.

In the first half, the Niners allowed six sacks and completed four passes while collecting as many penalties (five) as first downs. Smith went 2-for-7 for 10 yards and Harbaugh even said after the game that rookie Colin Kaepernick would get a shot to compete for a starting job.

That seems a lot longer than five months ago now.

Smith had by far his best season as a professional. He set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), yards passing (3,199) and passer rating (90.7) while playing mostly mistake-free ball to help the 49ers go 13-3 and easily win the NFC West.

The offensive line gelled to spark a strong running game by Frank Gore as the offense did just enough to support one of the league's top defenses and special teams units.

''We're really improved,'' said center Jonathan Goodwin, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Saints two years ago. ''At that point we had maybe two weeks of practice. It was tough. We didn't want to make any excuses. It's tough as a line to not play together. Experience playing together is valuable.''

Much was made after the game about a report that Saints coach Sean Payton went against convention with a heavy blitz package in the first preseason game because he was upset Harbaugh did not call him before the game so there could be a ''gentlemen's agreement'' to how the teams would approach the exhibition game.

Harbaugh said he even asked his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, about whether that was proper protocol.

''He wasn't aware of all that,'' Jim Harbaugh said. ''And even if there was, we wouldn't do it, anyway. We ask no quarter, we get no quarter. That's how we approach things.''

While many of the Niners players expressed surprise at the unusual strategy for a preseason game, Goodwin knew it was coming after seeing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams up close while playing the previous five seasons with the Saints.

''First practice in training camp Gregg blitzes. It wasn't a surprise for me. That's what he likes to do,'' Goodwin said. ''One thing about this league is you have to learn from your mistakes. Fortunately for us, at that time it was a preseason game, a game that didn't count against us. Hopefully, we've learned from some of those mistakes and can apply them in the future.''

This one counts.

The 49ers will need to handle the blitz better this week. According to STATS LLC, the Saints had the second most blitzes in the league this season with 365, trailing only Green Bay.

Those plays were effective, too, as New Orleans held opponents to a 48.1 percent completion percentage against the blitz with 24 sacks and five interceptions on 316 throws.

The Niners did well most of the season against pressure, with Alex Smith going 91 for 153 for 1,116 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception and a 96.7 passer rating. But they allowed 21 sacks, including 13 in the final six games.

But the Saints are different from most blitzing teams. They have 15 players who have been credited with sacks this season, led by safety Roman Harper's 7.5, making it difficult sometimes to know where the pressure is coming from.

''Their blitz schemes are a little bit different because they bring a lot more DBs, secondary guys instead of linebackers,'' Staley said. ''We have to do a great job just identifying and preparing all week.''

HARBAUGH AND HIS STAFF GATHERED at the team's Santa Clara facility Saturday night to watch the Saints/Lions wild-card game and eat pizza. They must have been daunted by what they saw.

New Orleans dropped 45 points on the Lions, Drew Brees passed for 466 yards and the Saints rolled up a NFL record 626 yards worth of offense. Harbaugh had nothing but effusive praise for Brees and the Saints offense during his Monday news conference.

But strangely, the 49ers might have also been heartened by what they saw. The game was tight throughout the first half, and when the Saints blew out Detroit in the second half, most of it was because of Lions mistakes.

The 49ers compiled a 13-3 record because of their uncanny ability to avoid mistakes. Also, the Saints were able to take advantage of Detroit weaknesses and those weaknesses happen to be 49ers' strengths.

For example:
--- The Saints took advantage of Lions linebackers in coverage, particularly in nickel situations. But 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are two of the best coverage linebackers in the game.

--- Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch had trouble defending the middle of the field particularly in Detroit's two-deep coverage. The speed of Willis and Bowman allow them to close up the middle in the two-deep, which the 49ers play fairly often.

--- Detroit got almost no pressure on Brees. The 49ers have a better chance of getting to Brees with their four down linemen in their nickel package. Thirty-two of the team's 44 sacks come from those four players. Brees will also have to deal with the Candlestick Park crowd noise, which is likely to be loud. The 49ers had 900 tickets left for sale last week and they were snapped up within 30 minutes. The stadium is likely to be as full of roaring fans as it has been for any game in the past decade.

--- The Lions continued to make coverage mistakes and dropped three interceptions. The 49ers have rarely made coverage errors this season, and their 23 interceptions is one reason they led the league with a plus-28 turnover ratio.

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