Saints on offense
The key to the attack is RB Ricky Williams, a 240-pound ball of twisted muscle with 6 percent body fat. Williams, who led the NFC in rushing through October with 557 yards, can move piles, and also has breakaway speed. Saints coaches say he is following his blocks better than in his first two seasons and getting the most out of every carry.
It will be a long day for the 49ers defense if Williams is consistently rumbling into the secondary. He is also a threat as a receiver. Expect Williams to have at least 20 to 25 touches, though the Saints are trying to diversify their attack.
Quarterback Aaron Brooks is a work in progress. Like most young passers, the third-year veteran can be equal parts captivating and frustrating, often on the same drive. Last season, Brooks passed for a club-record 441 yards in one game and ran for 108 yards in the next.
Opponents have worked to keep the elusive Brooks in the pocket, so he has gone through some growing pains this season. Brooks has able targets, though Haslett has grumbled that the wide receivers aren't getting enough separation from defenders. Joe Horn went from an being an unknown to the Pro Bowl last season with a team-record 94 receptions.
Albert Connell, the team's top free-agent acquisition, hasn't supplanted Willie Jackson on the opposite side. Brooks usually looks for the steady Jackson when in a jam. Cam Cleeland, the oft-injured but multi-talented tight end, had four touchdowns among his first seven catches.
The offensive line is the strength of the unit. William Roaf, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick, is the anchor at left tackle. However, Roaf is battling a knee injury and did not start the Saints Nov. 4 game against the Jets. Daryl Terrell, a solid run blocker, started in place of Roaf. Right tackle Kyle Turley is near Roaf's equal, and the trio of Wally Williams, Jerry Fontenot and Chris Naeole are solid on the interior. Ornery fullback Terrelle Smith gives the Saints another willing blocker for Williams.
Key matchup: Wide receiver Joe Horn vs. cornerback Ahmed Plummer:
Last year, Horn torched San Francisco's youthful secondary for 15 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings between the division rivals. Horn, voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2000, has been off to a slower start this season, as opponents consistently have rolled their coverages in his direction. He exploded for 120 yards and 2 TDs against St. Louis. Plummer has the moxy to stand up to the cocky Horn, now he must prove he has the speed and coverage ability to hang with the veteran.
How to beat the Saints offense: Opponents have been successful by loading the line of scrimmage on the first two downs and stopping Williams. After that, many clubs have used a "spy" to follow Brooks' every move, and have run their defensive ends upfield to keep him in the pocket. Another key is getting ahead. A healthy lead won't allow New Orleans to rely as much on its running game.
If the Saints pull ahead, they like to feed defenses a steady dose of Williams behind their massive offensive line, so foes often wither in the second half. The Saints have struggled mightily on offense at times, but there is plenty of potential. Saints on defense Coach Jim Haslett and defensive coordinator Ron Zook have created an aggressive, opportunistic unit that is among the league's best at getting after the quarterback. New Orleans' 21 sacks were just three off the league lead, despite a bye week.
Most of the pressure has come from a top-notch defensive front, but the Saints also employ a number of diabolical blitz schemes that send speedy rushers steaming into the backfield from all directions. Joe Johnson, La'Roi Glover, Norman Hand and Darren Howard give the Saints one of the NFL's best defensive lines. Glover, an undersized ball of energy at tackle, led the NFL last season with 17 sacks, though he had only four after six games this season. Johnson, relentless from left end, posted six sacks in the first six games. Howard, who set a club rookie record in 2000 with 11 QB takedowns, helps collapse the pocket from right end. The 320-pound Hand does the dirty work. It takes a double-team to block him, and he is a monster against the run.
Middle linebacker Charlie Clemons has added size and speed to the middle of the defense. He's a sudden tackler against the run who slides down to end in passing situations. He had five sacks in the first five games. Outside linebacker Keith Mitchell, was a Pro Bowl pick last year, and veteran Darrin Smith is steady. One of the surprises for the Saints has been the excellent play of the secondary. Cornerbacks Fred Thomas and Kevin Mathis are undersized but stout against the run and the pass.
Free-agent signee Jay Bellamy has added speed and veteran savvy at safety. The chief headhunter of the group is safety Sammy Knight. Deemed too slow for the defensive backfield when he came out of USC as an undersized linebacker in 1997, Knight has piled up 20 interceptions and four touchdowns since being signed as an undrafted rookie. His five picks this season were second most in the NFL through October.
Key matchup: Left guard Ray Brown vs. defensive tackle La'Roi Glover:
Pay close attention to this heavyweight battle in the trenches. Glover led the NFL in sacks in 2000, posting a career-best 17. Remarkably, none of those came in the two games against the Niners. It should come as no surprise, as the powerful Brown didn't allow a sack all season and is recognized as the anchor of the 49ers' offensive front. Brown is also a force while blocking for the run, and he has a healthy, 33-pound weight advantage on the cat-quick Glover, who is also the Saints' strongest player.
How to beat the Saints defense: Open quickly. Success on first down is a must, as opponents struggle against the Saints' relentless pressure in passing situations. The Giants and Falcons established a viable running attack, which helped create time for play-action passes. If the 49ers can do as well, QB Jeff Garcia will be able to search for holes in a secondary that is unspectacular. Offensive player QB Aaron Brooks 6-4, 205 Ricky Williams is a given, but keep an eye on Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks.
With a rocket arm, quick feet and cool disposition, the lanky youngster has superstar potential. Brooks has looked unsure at times this season, with several sacks coming from confusion or holding on to the ball too long. Though his passer rating was a mediocre 79.7 through October, he had tossed 10 TD passes and only four INTs. Defenses need to get to him now, because he has all the tools to be a standout for the next decade.
Defensive player DT La'Roi Glover 6-2, 285
La'Roi Glover is relentless, and he has feasted on quarterbacks since the Saints signed Norman Hand before the 2000 season. At one time, Glover had Hand's responsibilities of taking on two blockers and filling space — a tough job. Voted to the Pro Bowl last year, Glover has led the Saints in sacks the last three seasons. Only two NFL players (Kevin Carter and Warren Sapp) have had more than Glover's 35 1/2 sacks in that span. The former NFL Europe standout is a feel-good story who joined the Saints after being waived by the Raiders in 1997.