Bad break/good call: First of all, my thoughts on the biggest and most controversial play of the game -- the personal foul penalty called against 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the fourth quarter. I think it was an extremely bad break for the 49ers. And maybe the NFL should consider changing the rules for what’s considered a penalty and what isn’t. But under the current rules, it didn’t surprise me one bit that they threw the flag. I actually would have been shocked if they didn’t, based on what we see on a weekly basis in this league. I think back to the two penalties called against Saints cornerback Corey White a few weeks ago, for instance, and there are countless other examples.
Although Brooks’ first contact against Brees was in the shoulder area, his momentum quickly took his arm up into Brees’ neck area. And he almost wound up slamming Brees helmet-to-helmet, as well. In today’s NFL, it’s a risk for defensive players to aim that high against quarterbacks or defenseless receivers. It’s too bad that such a great effort by Brooks turned into a negative play for the 49ers. But pass-rushers have to realize by now that they’re risking those flags when they take such a high angle.
Lucky break for Saints: No matter where you stand on that controversial decision, you have to agree it was an extremely lucky break for the Saints. Although the Saints’ pass protection was very good throughout the game, right tackle Zach Strief got torched by Brooks on the play -- with just a straight speed rush around the corner while the 49ers were blitzing with a total of five rushers. Brees never saw Brooks coming. And, in fact, Brees even slid a half-step toward Brooks before the hit (maybe one of the reasons Brooks overshot?) It was a great play by Brooks, who forced a fumble that was recovered by 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.
Blitz busters: Other than the play above, the Saints did an outstanding job of picking up blitzes throughout the game. The 49ers didn’t blitz often, but the Saints made them pay when they did. Brees connected with receiver Robert Meachem on passes of 44 and 34 yards when the 49ers blitzed five men. And Brees’ best throw of the day came against a six-man blitz with 50 seconds remaining, when he hit Marques Colston with a 20-yard pass to put New Orleans in field goal range.
The Saints had seven blockers on the play, and running back Darren Sproles and guard Ben Grubbs did just enough to keep linebackers Willis and NaVorro Bowman at bay. Brees fired a perfect throw down the field to Colston right before absorbing a hit.
Spreading the wealth: It dawned on me as I was watching the tape that it felt like Brees was hitting a different receiver on almost every play. Sure enough, he completed passes to 11 different receivers -- including the first career touchdown pass for undrafted rookie tight end Josh Hill on a beautifully-executed 3-yard pass in the first quarter.
Hill helped sell the play-action fake by blocking Brooks at the line of scrimmage. Then Hill released into the flat after Meachem lured three defenders into the back of the end zone.
Solid run-blocking: The Saints’ offensive line didn’t blow giant holes through the 49ers’ front like they did a week earlier against the Dallas Cowboys. But in some ways, this performance was just as impressive since the 49ers' defense is so stout. The Saints consistently rattled off 5- and 6-yard runs throughout the day to help move the chains. Running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Sproles combined for 90 yards on 20 carries (4.5 yards per carry).
I thought fullback Jed Collins had another exceptional day. Grubbs consistently stood out, as well (despite a holding penalty on a run play). And the Saints even used backup linemen Tim Lelito and Bryce Harris as up-backs (something I haven’t seen much in the past). Lelito made nice blocks in that role on a 15-yard run by Ingram in the first quarter and a 10-yard run by Thomas to the 49ers’ 1-yard line in the second quarter.
Meachem also made an outstanding crack-back block in Ingram’s 15-yard run. The all-around blocking has really been coming together for the Saints over the past month or so.
Biggest blunders: Two huge blunders nearly cost the Saints the game. The first was receiver Lance Moore’s fumbled punt return in the second quarter. Moore’s view may have been blocked by 49ers safety C.J. Spillman, who was hovering nearby after Moore signaled for a fair catch. But Moore still should have caught it. The ball bounced right off his hands after he crouched and tried to cradle it.
The second was Brees’ ill-advised interception/gift to Brooks in the third quarter, when Brees tried to float the ball over Brooks’ head to tight end Jimmy Graham while throwing off his back foot.
When watching the game live, I thought it looked like a horrible decision by Brees and that he should have thrown the ball away on the third-and-4 play. But watching the tape, I at least understood what Brees saw. Graham had gotten wide open behind Brooks after the play had broken down and Brees scrambled to buy extra time. If Brees had put more zip on the pass, maybe it would have been a big gain. But he didn’t.
Tough day: Although the 49ers' defense didn’t "dominate" the Saints physically, they still lived up to their reputation as a physical unit. Saints left tackle Charles Brown got beat a handful of times (twice leading to Brees getting hit to the ground after he threw, and once leading to a 1-yard loss by Ingram). San Francisco lineman Justin Smith made that tackle on Ingram and had a few nice disruptions up front during the game.
The 49ers’ secondary also played physical in coverage. Safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid, especially, contested several throws -- including a fourth-and-4 pass attempt to Hill in the third quarter. And this time, Saints receiver Kenny Stills was unable to win a jump ball in the end zone like he’s done so often in recent weeks because cornerback Eric Wright had him so well-covered.
The Saints did a good job of staying patient and settling for underneath throws throughout the game (similar to their victory over the Chicago Bears earlier this year).