Saints alive! N.O. puts the big hurt on 49ers

This one hurt to watch as much as Alex Smith's throwing shoulder pained him from start to finish on another agonizing Sunday afternoon for the 49ers. The losing streak now is at five games, the morale is taking a nosedive, the offense continues to regress and now the defense is following along as San Francisco took it on the chinstrap again during a shameful 31-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

After the 49ers went from bad to worse to horrible before their booing home fans at Monster Park, Mike Nolan was asked if he thought these kind of days were behind his struggling 2-5 team.

"That's a great question," said Nolan, whose usually stern post-game face is beginning to take on a shell-shocked dimension. The 49ers coach pondered the thought for a moment before finally responding.

"The ugliness of the days, yeah," Nolan replied. "Or at least a little bit. Occasionally, you'll have days like that. But we've lost five in a row. There's nothing occasional about that."

And there was nothing occasional about the way the Drew Brees-led Saints poured it on into the fourth quarter while the 49ers were stumbling around on offense for most of the day during Smith's return from a two-game layoff that resulted from his separated right (throwing) shoulder.

Smith, who took a pain-killing injection before the game, admitted that the shoulder hurt most of the day, and boy did it show on the field in the early going as he misfired high and wild on several of his throws.

Then, late in the first quarter, Smith scrambled toward the right sideline and took a big hit directly on that throwing shoulder from Saints linebacker Scott Fujita. Smith popped up right after the play, but the hit rattled the structure of his injured shoulder, with Smith saying things got loose in there again before team trainers taped it up during the short break between the first and second quarters.

Smith played on courageously, taking hit after hit, but never doing much to really get San Francisco's stagnant, 32nd-ranked offense moving as many had hoped upon his return. The 49ers needed a 15-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to surpass 200 yards of total offense for only the third time in seven games this season.

By that time, the Saints already had built an embarrassing 31-3 lead.

While the San Francisco offense struggled again during a third consecutive loss on its home turf, the Saints had no such problems. Contrary to previous games during the team's five-game slide, a 49ers defense that had climbed to 17th in the league rankings could do little to keep San Francisco in the game.

Brees sliced and diced and picked apart the 49ers for big passing numbers, completing 31 of 39 throws for 336 yards and four touchdowns, compiling a gaudy 136.8 passer rating in the process. The usually resilient San Francisco secondary simply couldn't hold up to the onslaught.

Brees, who guided the Saints on three touchdown drives of 73 yards or longer and three other drives of 40 yards or longer, threw touchdown passes of 17 yards to Marques Colston, 2 yards to Terrance Copper and then 3 yards to Colston again with 50 seconds remaining in the second quarter to give New Orleans a dominating 24-0 halftime lead.

"They had trouble getting lined up at times," Brees said of a beleaguered 49ers defense. "It was because of our fast tempo. It caused them some difficulties. We were able to keep them off balance and had good success throwing the ball."

No kidding. Brees was never sacked and was only hit once all afternoon – on a safety blitz by Mark Roman – as the Saints rolled to 438 yards of total offense, the most allowed by the 49ers this season.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco offense never assembled one drive of more than 35 yards in the first three quarters. The 35-yard drive came after Nate Clements stripped Colston of the football after a short pass for one of the few big plays made by San Francisco the entire afternoon.

Roman recovered the fumble at the New Orleans 46, but even then the 49ers couldn't take full advantage and had to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Joe Nedney that still left them trailing by three touchdowns with time winding down in the third quarter.

They'd never come any closer to cutting into the huge deficit.

"There's obviously a problem here from turnovers to just not making plays, period, as a whole team, all around the board, offense, special teams, defense – everybody," 49ers receiver Ashley Lelie said.

That about covers it, leaving the 49ers searching for answers once again after another horrendous loss that indicates they are far from solving their manifold problems.

And now, after a 2-0 start, the Niners are right back where they were at this time last year, when they also started 2-5.

"If you would have told me that we'd start off the way we are right now, I would have called you a liar," said 49ers defensive end Bryant Young, who had another quiet afternoon with no tackles. "I never saw this coming. I wouldn't have believed we could start off like this with the team we have."

But here the 49ers are, reeling as midseason approaches in this season of high expectations. San Francisco rallied from last year's 2-5 start to win its next three games and surge back into the playoff picture, and Nolan said, "We're sitting at 2-5, same place we were last year, not where we wanted to be, not where we hoped to be at this time. But as we did last year, we climbed back up to .500 and got back in the race. I would hope for us to do the same thing this year."

But with the slipping defense going bad like it did Sunday, you've got to wonder how in heck that is going to happen. Hope, apparently, is all the 49ers have left.

"This team is a lot better than it has been showing," said Smith, who looked both awkward and erratic while completing 22 of 43 passes for 190 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, who had a nice afternoon with a career-high six receptions for 71 yards.

"But we haven't done it," Smith continued, "and we need to get there."

But right now, they 49ers aren't even close, and they're seemingly getting farther and farther away as each week passes.

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