Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Saints

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's pivotal game between the 49ers and the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch and injury impact.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 12 noon Central
SITE: Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum
RECORDS: 49ers 5-6, tied for second place in NFC West; Saints 7-4, first place in NFC South
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Bill Maas, Jay Glazer
2006 NFL RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 23rd (4th rush, 27th pass); defense 20th (17th rush, 25th pass). Saints: offense 1st (28th rush, 1st pass); defense 17th (29th rush, 6th pass)

SERIES HISTORY: 68th meeting. The 49ers lead the series, 45-20-2, despite the Saints winning five of the last seven - including four of the last five games that have been played in the Superdome. The teams have met just twice (with the Saints winning both times) since the NFL realigned in 2002. Prior to that, the Saints and Niners played twice a year from 1970-2001 as members of the NFC West.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Even if they stack the box with eight defenders, can the Saints slow down 49ers RB Frank Gore? He has averaged 168.3 rushing yards the past three games despite every opponent game-planning to stop him. New Orleans has to figure out some way to cope with the massive left side of San Francisco's offensive line and force QB Alex Smith to make plays in long passing situations. Meanwhile, the 49ers need to be able to control the clock to help protect their defense. No one is hotter than Saints QB Drew Brees, who is on pace to challenge Dan Marino's single-season passing record. The 49ers could be without CB Shawntae Spencer for a second consecutive game, while the Saints are monitoring injuries to WRs Joe Horn and Marques Colston. San Francisco will be in deep trouble if its front seven isn't able to contain the ground game.

FAST FACTS: 49ers -- Gore leads the NFL with 12 carries of at least 20 yards. … He ranks second in NFL in rushing and already has rushed for the seventh-highest total in team history with 1,177 yards. Saints -- Brees' 1,954 yards over the past five games is the most in NFL history for a five-game stretch. ... Brees is the sixth quarterback to throw for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- The number of road victories the 49ers have achieved in each of the past four seasons. 1,954 -- Passing yards for Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the past five games, which is the most over a five-game stretch in NFL history.

QUOTES TO NOTE
--- "I definitely think my arm has gotten stronger as we have gone along here. Week to week, month to month, it has gotten so much better." -- Saints QB Drew Brees, on his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder.
--- "We need to regroup. We were up and swinging for three games in a row, and last week we got knocked down. Now, we got to get up and swinging again." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, whose team's three-game win streak was snapped last week in a 20-17 loss to the Rams.

49ERS GAME PLAN: The new-and-improved 49ers defense will face its stiffest test when they face the Saints on Sunday. The Saints' offense is on a roll, averaging 511.7 yards in its past three games. And quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for at least 300 yards in the past five games. The 49ers' pass defense will be severely hamstrung if cornerback Shawntae Spencer is unavailable again. If he does not start, cornerback Donald Strickland will likely get his second consecutive start. Coach Mike Nolan said he regretted his decision not to put more pressure on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger last week during the final drive of the game. The 49ers must find a way to put heat on Brees with the use of blitzes. The 49ers have been unable to generate a consistent pass rush with their four defensive linemen. The 49ers will try to keep the ball out of the Saints' hands with their run game, behind running back Frank Gore. With the Saints likely to commit eight guys in the box to stop the run, quarterback Alex Smith has to do a better job of making plays down the field. Offensive coordinator has to get Smith into a position to use play-action pass to get the ball down the field to receiver Antonio Bryant and tight end Vernon Davis, who resumed his starting role last week against the Rams. Bryant had back-to-back receptions of 28 and 25 yards, but did not catch any other passes. Davis had just one catch for 11 yards. Davis has trouble catching the ball, but once it is in his hands, he has the ability to run past or over people at the next level.

SAINTS GAME PLAN: Because the Saints lead the NFL in passing with 307.5 yards a game, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them go after the 49ers' 25th-ranked pass defense. The Saints probably won't mind trying to run the ball in order to have some balance on offense, but they've been gaining more and more confidence with each passing week -- which means that they'll want to exploit the 49ers' pass defense.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- Saints WR Devery Henderson vs. 49ers CB Walt Harris. Henderson has used his exceptional speed to abuse the Bengals and Falcons the last two weeks, burning them for 13 catches, 327 yards and a TD. So getting him behind the 49ers' shaky pass defense will be a key for the Saints.
--- Saints LDE Charles Grant vs. 49ers RT Kwame Harris. Grant has five sacks this season and is having a solid season. He'll try to use his speed and aggressive nature to get around Harris and get quarterback Alex Smith, who has been sacked 22 times so far, squarely in his sights.
--- Saints secondary vs. 49ers QB Alex Smith. The Saints were all over the place in holding the Falcons to 52 net passing yards last week -- confusing Michael Vick and forcing him to throw the ball where he didn't want to go with it. Doing the same to Smith, a second-year pro, will be the goal again this week.
--- 49ers LB Jeff Ulbrich, who enters the game on third downs and had a difficult time keeping up with Rams RB Steven Jackson last week, vs. Saints RB Reggie Bush, who leads all NFL running backs with 64 receptions, including a league-high 25 third-down catches.
--- 49ers SS Mark Roman, who is the 49ers' best safety in coverage, vs. Saints QB Drew Brees, who will try to pick apart the 49ers' suspect pass defense.
--- 49ers LB Brandon Moore, who lines up at LDE in passing situations, vs. Saints RT Jon Stinchcomb, who has entered the starting lineup this season.
--- 49ers TE Vernon Davis, a speedster who is also used a lot as a blocker in the 49ers' power run game, vs. Saints SLB Scott Fujita, who leads the club with 91 tackles.

INJURY IMPACT
49ERS: RB Frank Gore (right leg contusions) is expected to be ready for Sunday's game after beginning the week listed as questionable. CB Shawntae Spencer (right ankle) remains listed as questionable after missing last week's game against the Rams and his status Sunday will be a game-time decision. CB Donald Strickland would start if Spencer is unable to play. LT Jonas Jennings (left ankle) is listed as questionable for Sunday's game but is expected to be ready to play. Jennings did not practice last week until Friday. LB Jeff Ulbrich, who has surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left thumb on Monday, is listed as probable and is expected to play.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Devery Henderson will likely start if Marques Colston can't play Sunday because of a sprained ankle. Henderson has 13 receptions for 327 yards and a TD in the last two games. MLB Danny Clark will start if Mark Simoneau is unable to play against the 49ers because of a fractured left hand. Simoneau was wearing a hard cast on the hand earlier this week and is questionable for the game. RDE Willie Whitehead will start if Will Smith is held out of Sunday's game with a bruised knee.


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