Reading the keys: 49ers/Saints

How the 49ers fared in nine keys to the game identified before their 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Superdome, an outcome that extended San Francisco's lead in the NFC West to 2½ games and maintained the Niners' current No. 2 seeding in the NFC playoff pecking order.

Never allow Drew Brees to get in a steady rhythm
The Niners did a great job of disrupting Brees throughout the afternoon, never allowing him an opportunity to get comfortable in the pocket, particularly on key third-down plays, on which the Saints converted only three of 10 times during the game. New Orleans' passing game has been its one constant throughout the season, with Brees' 28 touchdown passes leading the NFL and his 306.6 yards per game passing ranking second. Brees was a respectable 26 of 41 passing for 267 yards through the air Sunday, but he managed to direct just one scoring drive after halftime when the Saints needed much more than that. The Niners effectively shut down Brees as the game progressed, sacking him five times – all coming in the second half – and hitting him on at least seven occasions. Brees' rhythm also was significantly thrown out of kilter when he tossed two interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns.

Let it fly with Kaepernick against Saints' suspect passing defense
Once again, the 49ers weren't afraid to let Colin Kaepernick air it out in his second career start – and first on the road in a raucous enemy atmosphere. Kaepernick once again displayed an ability to get the ball down the field, averaging a healthy 9.2 yards per pass play – more than four yards better than Brees. Kaepernick had five completions of more than 20 yards, including two of more than 40 yards to stretch the New Orleans defense. Delanie Walker (46-yard catch) and Mario Manningham (40-yard catch) both had their longest receptions of the season with Kaepernick getting the ball to them with quick-release spirals. Kaepernick's solid 231 yards passing and 90.6 passer rating were major factors in another fine performance by the San Francisco offense and another big victory by the Niners.

Protect football and limit mistakes at noisy Superdome
Ted Ginn Jr. made an egregious error when he caught a punt and then coughed it up without being hit at the San Francisco 11-yard line after the Niners had forced a punt following a 10-play drive by New Orleans. The Saints recovered the fumble, leading to a quick touchdown that gave them their only lead of the game at 14-7 and a lot of momentum to go with it. After having his timing altered by a low snap he had to dig off the carpet, Kaepernick hurried a throw to the left sideline that resulted in his first career interception and halted a promising San Francisco drive late in the second quarter. That brought to an end San Francisco's string of three games without committing a turnover. The Niners also had several big plays nullified and offensive drives stalled by penalties as San Francisco was flagged 10 times for 68 negative yards.

Constant pressure on Saints offensive line and rookie tackle Bryce Harris
The Saints had to start Harris on their right edge with regular starter Zack Strief hobbled by a groin injury and his replacement, Charles Brown, out after being hurt last week. Before leaving the game with a leg injury, Harris struggled in protection as did the rest of the New Orleans offensive line, which the Niners were able to wear down with relentless pressure and finally overwhelm in the second half, when the Niners had all five of their sacks on Brees. NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith each had 1½ sacks as the Niners got pressure from all areas, including from blitzing inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who was credited with half a sack.

Stuff Saints' surging rushing game
New Orleans' recent surge of four wins in five games had been aided by a ground game that had rushed for 140 or more yards in three consecutive games after rushing for 100 or more just once in the Saints' first seven games. That string of strong performances is over after the Niners smothered the Saints, limiting them to just 59 yards rushing on 21 carries, a 2.8 average. Mark Ingram, New Orleans' leading rusher, was hammered frequently and finished with just 27 yards rushing on 10 carries. Chris Ivory, who had a team-leading 5.8-yard average per carry entering the game, had to work for his 34 yards on eight carries. The Saints had just four rushing first downs as the Niners' stout defensive wall manhandled them up front.

Keep offense balanced and set up play-action passing with steady dose of running game
After a slow start, the NFL's leading rushing team kept hammering away and gained 100 of its 144 yards rushing in the second half to help put away the game. Frank Gore typically got stronger as the game progressed and had 71 of his game-high 83 yards rushing in the second half. Kendall Hunter averaged 7.0 yards on his four carries before leaving the game with an injury, and once again Kaepernick contributed with his feet, which provided 27 yards rushing and a weaving 7-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter for the game's first score. The Niners finished not far off their league-best 165.5-yard rushing average, and the Saints had a difficult time figuring out what was coming after halftime, when the Niners gained 219 of their 375 yards of total offense, out-gaining the NFL's fifth-ranked offense by 85 yards.

Take away Jimmy Graham over the middle
Graham gave the 49ers all kinds of trouble in last year's divisional playoff game, when he caught five passes for 103 yards – including a 66-yard touchdown pass that put the Saints ahead in the final minutes – and he was the outlet target Brees needed to count on Sunday in the middle of the field when he was matched up with San Francisco linebackers, which was often. But Graham was a non-factor, taken out of the game early and never giving the Saints the weapon they hoped he could be against the Niners' aggressive defense. Graham had just four receptions for a negligible 33 yards, and two of those catches (for 17 yards) came in garbage time on New Orleans' final possession in the game's final minute.

Make the big hits and big plays in secondary against the NFL's second-ranked passing game
Despite Brees' 267 yards and three touchdowns passing, the 49ers set the tone with their aggressive play in the secondary led by hard-hitting safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who delivered several punishing blows throughout the afternoon. Goldson let everybody know what happens when receivers come over the middle when he flipped and leveled Marques Colston on a deep throw, sending the New Orleans wideout wobbling to the sideline after laying on the carpet a while. On the same play, Whitner grabbed a pass tipped off Colston's hands and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown that put the Niners in control 28-14 early in the third quarter. The Niners challenged the New Orleans passing game throughout the afternoon, playing lots of man coverage and knocking down three passes. But the key statistic was San Francisco's two interceptions, both of which were returned for scores as Ahmad Brooks took his pick back 50 yards with just 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter to tie the game 14-14 and give the Niners momentum heading into the locker room at halftime.

No big returns or big plays by Darren Sproles
Another guy who hurt the 49ers in last season's playoff game, Sproles was returning from a three-game absence due to injury and Brees targeted him a team-high nine times out of the backfield on passing downs. Sproles did slip down the sideline for a 35-yard reception, but it came with 13 seconds left in the game and the Saints didn't even bother to run another play. On his six other receptions, Sproles gained just 30 yards. And he went nowhere in the return game, making two fair catches on Andy Lee punts and gaining just three yards on the one punt he was able to return.

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