Best to date? The Saints' final defensive stand in this game didn’t get nearly the credit it deserved, since it was overshadowed by so many other late-game heroics (and a controversial penalty call). But I would argue that the Saints’ final defensive series was even more impressive than anything New Orleans’ offense or kicker Garrett Hartley did to win this game. And it might be the most impressive thing the Saints defense has done to date this season – which is saying a lot.
The Saints were downright dominant after San Francisco took over from its own 20-yard line with 2:06 remaining and the game tied 20-20.
On first-and-10, outside linebacker Junior Galette and defensive end Keyunta Dawson combined to sack 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a 9-yard loss. The Saints only rushed four on the play, but Dawson and Galette criss-crossed on a stunt, and left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Adam Snyder both wound up blocking Dawson while Galette ran free. Galette hit Kaepernick first, and Dawson helped wrap him up.
Then on second-and-19, Saints end Cameron Jordan nearly forced a game-winning safety when he pressured Kaepernick into an incomplete pass. Jordan beat a double-team on the play from right tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Alex Boone. Jordan’s early penetration forced Kaepernick to slide to his right, then Jordan bounced off the blockers to run free at Kaepernick. Kaepernick barely avoided an intentional grounding call, but I was OK with the no-call since he did take a couple steps outside of the pocket (he just never got outside of Jordan).
On third-and-19, Kaepernick took off running for a 16-yard gain, but cornerback Chris Carr corralled him in time.
More pressure: Jordan also beat Davis for a sack in the second quarter on a four-man rush; beat Staley to force an incomplete pass in the fourth quarter on a three-man rush; and batted down a pass on a four-man rush in the first quarter. Hicks got a 1-yard sack when he got in Kaepernick’s way after the quarterback decided to take off running against a four-man rush in the second quarter.
And on third-and-9 midway through the fourth quarter, the Saints sent a seven-man blitz that forced Kaepernick into an immediate overthrow.
No blitz required: Saints innovative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan unveiled a new pass rush package throughout the game, with Galette and Jordan on the edges and Dawson and linebacker Parys Haralson lined up as defensive tackles. Sometimes all four were standing up, sometimes just one or two of them.
For the most part, the Saints had more success with just a four-man rush than when they blitzed. The interception Kaepernick threw to cornerback Corey White in the second quarter also came against a four-man rush.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin (a beautiful back-shoulder throw on a timing pass against White) came against a blitz. Kaepernick’s near-TD pass to Jon Baldwin one play earlier came against a blitz. And the 49ers missed out on a huge potential gain in the fourth quarter when Kaepernick escaped a blitz and threw on the run to a wide-open Frank Gore, who dropped the ball.
Faked out: That dropped pass by Gore was an underrated moment. That could have set up the 49ers to go ahead by six or even 10 points. The Saints’ linebackers all chose to follow Kaepernick when he took off running, leaving Gore unattended.
Also, the Saints totally bit in the third quarter when Kaepernick took off running to his right out of the pistol formation, then turned and fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis behind safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Run dominance: I already gave a lot of credit to Ryan’s creativity against the run. He unveiled a new five-linebacker formation for much of the game, with only three defensive backs on the field. Gore slipped through for only two long gains -- a well-designed and well-blocked 24-yard run behind pulling center Jonathan Goodwin and a well-blocked 11-yard run.
Other than that, the Saints consistently shut down all of the 49ers’ runners. Linebacker David Hawthorne stopped running back Kendall Hunter for a 6-yard loss. Haralson and linebacker Curtis Lofton blew up a play to stop Hunter for a 3-yard loss. Galette made an athletic play to stop Gore for a 1-yard loss. And Hicks and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley were monsters up front throughout the day, showing a lot of power to get penetration.
White’s high/lows: White made a terrific, aggressive play to shoot in front of receiver Mario Manningham for his interception in the second quarter. But he got over-aggressive when he fumbled at the 1-yard line while trying to score. The ball went through the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback for the 49ers.
Originally I thought White got himself in trouble while trying to reach the ball over the goal line. But on replay, it actually looked like he might have been trying to tuck the ball away with Kaepernick in hot pursuit. Either way, he lost his grip.
White was also flagged for a ticky-tack pass interference penalty against Manningham in the second quarter. Both players turned to come back for an underthrown ball, and White’s contact on Manningham’s back looked incidental.
Pass rejecters: The Saints’ secondary held up great for much of the game, especially considering how often they were in single coverage. They were officially credited for nine pass defenses, including two by cornerback Jabari Greer in the first quarter before he suffered his season-ending injury. Fittingly, Greer’s final play was a leaping pass break-up on third-and-10 against Baldwin.