September 21, 2010

Escape from San Francisco: Saints win Mora-esque squeaker, 25-22

On a night when longtime Saints nemesis Jerry Rice was honored at halftime by the home team, it seemed fitting that the Saints engage their old NFC West adversary in an early-90s Jim Mora-esque thriller.

Conservative offense featuring a stubborn run game?  Check.  Fourth quarter defensive meltdown against an NFC West opponent?  Check.  Last-second field goal?  Check. 

Except this time, the Saints pulled out the victory against an old rival.

The game started off with nine quick points for the Saints - two on a blooper-bound shotgun snap fifteen feet in the air that 49ers QB Alex Smith batted out of the back of the end zone for a safety, then seven on a short Brees pass to inside-cutting Reggie Bush.

But after scoring a touchdown to go up 9-0 with only 5:13 into the game, the Saints offense would be silenced by a tough 49ers defense and wouldn't touch the scoreboard until late in the third quarter.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints defense had a rollercoaster night.  QB Alex Smith, the redeemed first overall pick in 2005, was remarkable in the swirling winds of his home stadium.  He played a Drew Brees-like game, showing great accuracy underneath and making the most of his matchup advantages, throwing to eight different targets on his way to hit 23 of 32 passes for 275 yards and a first half touchdown.  Unlike Brees, Smith showed a willingness to run, numerous times beating a Saints defensive lineman to the edge and turning upfield with his good foot speed.  Smith picked up 28 yards on four carries, himself accounting for more than half the rushing yards for the Saints.

Also damaging the Saints on the ground was bruiser Frank Gore, who bludgeoned the Saints on each of his 20 carries for 112 yards and a late touchdown that helped the 49ers tie the game. Gore added 56 yards on seven catches and routinely made Jonathan Vilma and other Saints defenders deflect away from a tackle.  Only when Gore was caught in the open flat-footed did the Saints have any shot at wrapping him up right away, like CB Jabari Greer did in the first half for a loss.

But Gore and his 49er teammates atoned for their efficiencies with costly errors.  Gore deflected an out pass off his hands and into the arms of Roman Harper at the Saint 26 for an early interception.  TE Delaney Walker fumbled at the Saint 8 yard line when stripped by Vilma, and it was recovered by FS Malcolm Jenkins. 

The Saints couldn't turn either of those first half turnovers into points, but they snuffed out 49er drives and allowed the Saints to escape to the the locker rooms at halftime up 9-7.

To open the second half, the Saints moved from their own 16 to midfield, but a holding call on G Jahri Evans and a ten-yard loss on a sack snuffed out that drive. It was the first time the Saints didn't open a half this season with a touchdown drive.

The 49ers got the ball back and moved the ball easily, gashing the Saints 86 yards in six plays, the final two by rookie RB Anthony Dixon from Mississippi State on a touchdown that gave the 49ers a 14-9 lead midway through the third quarter.

Stung and behind for the first time in the game, the Brees' offense sprung to life. Aided by a good return by WR Courtney Roby and a roughing the passer penalty on LB Parys Haralson, the Saints moved to the 49er red zone after an 11-yard middle pass pickup by Bush on 3rd and 7 and a five yard run by Pierre Thomas.  Down near the goal line after an eight-yard first down strike to Colston, Bush lost four yards rushing then gained them back to set up third and goal at the three.

A quick strike to TE David Thomas to the right side put the Saints back on top 16-14, and the Saints had momentum.  The defense forced a three-and-out, only their second of the game, and as the fourth quarter started, the Saints got a huge 43-yard punt return by Reggie Bush to set the Saints up at the 35. 

But a third down buttonhook pass to Colston was slapped down down by CB Reggie Smith, and the Saints settled for a 46-yard field goal attempt by Garrett Hartley, who had missed his first two attempts of the season last week in New Orleans.  The swirling winds pushed and pulled the kick but Hartley's supremely powerful leg muscle it through for a big 19-14 lead. 

The Saints kept momentum on the next drive despite allowing the 49ers to move easily down the field again.  Gore ripped off back-to-back 10-yard rushes before gaining nine on a short pass.  Then, SS Roman Harper was victimized in one-on-one coverage with TE Vernon Davis, mugging him helplessly and getting flagged for 29 yards on the defensive pass interference.

On the next play, the 49ers rallying from the New Orleans 22 yard line, strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar stuck his left paw out high in the air to deflect Smith's pass over the middle to Michael Crabtree.  The ball spun high over Crabtree and into the waiting arms of CB Tracy Porter, snuffing out another 49er threat. 

But Brees and the offense got nothing done, losing five yards on a Pierre Thomas rush that was killed in the backfield - a common scene. Then, from his own end zone, Brees had fans gasping when his pass over the middle was batted right back to him.  At his own goal line Brees one-handed the catch and decided to scramble.  A heads-up play by a quarterback who doesn't run much, Brees pumpfaked a lane free and ran all the way up to the 17 yard line, allowing the Saints room punt. 

And that's when the winds of the 4th quarter aligned themselves at the Saints' backs.

Morstead's punt was a moonshot, landing at the 49er 25 yard line where CB Phillip Adams was stopped after a six yard return.  Thanks to Brees' heads up but risky decision to catch his own pass and scramble, followed by Morstead's wind-boosted punt, the 49ers weren't able to capitalize on good field position.  After they moved the ball 14 yards to their own 45, and would have been in field position. That small but crucial victory would set set the stage for a pivotal final seven minutes of the game.  Instead, Andy Lee and the 49ers, down five points, punted to Reggie Bush. 

And that's when disaster nearly struck.  Bush muffed the punt, letting it bounce of his shoulder pads, perhaps hoping to repeat what looked like a near-breakaway on his last long punt return.  Bush luckily recovered it, but the special teams of created a human mountain on top of him.  Bush emerged limping and had to be carried off the field, suffering an apparent left leg injury.  He did not return and was on crutches after the game.

The Saints had momentum slipping, again.  A three-and-out because of a Brees misfire to Colston set Morstead out to punt again. He sent up another blast, a 52-yarder near the sideline inside the 49er red zone.  Rookie returner Adams was indecisive and let it slip through his hands.  His momentum carried him out of bounds but the ball magically touched the ground and bounced up, staying in bounds a foot from the sideline. 

Gunner Courtney Roby pounced on it, and the Saints were back in business again, up five points with 5:27 left.

But the 49ers defense was up to the task again.  Brees hit Colston for an eight yard gain to the four yard line and a first down and goal.  But similar to the end of the first half of Superbowl XLIV, the Saints were stopped cold at the goal line. Pierre Thomas was denied twice, then on third down Heath Evans was stuffed for no gain.

The Saints settled for an uneasy eight point lead on a chip shot 19-yard field goal by Hartley, but the 49ers sensed opportunity.

In what came as no surprise to fans of the Gregg Williams-era Redskins, the 49ers blitzed down the field with Alex Smith dropping back to pass on all but one play of a game-tying drive.  With his arm and his scrambling ability, Smith produced gains of 16, 12, 15, 18, 12, and 2 yards before Gore blasted up the middle for a seven yard touchdown.  Smith fired short to TE Vernon Davis, who was coming back and caught the ball as video evidence overturned the ruling on the field that he was down at the inch line. 

The game was tied up at 22 with :53 left.  Brees and the offense mustered up what they had left on this long road trip following an 11-day break between games.

Following a good return by Roby to the Saint 30, Brees checked down to Pierre Thomas for gains of eight and fourteen yards before taking a timeout with :43 left.   He fired dangerously short to Marques Colston, nearly intercepted, but then made his best pass of the night in the turbulent San Francisco air.  Down the left seam to Colston, Brees' back-shoulder pass found S Dashon Goldson unaware.  Colston's fantastic adjustment to catch the ball with Goldson draped all over him gained 30 yards and set the Saints' up for the win.  That play was the longest for the Saints season so far and came at the perfect time.

Brees spiked the clock, then hit Jeremy Shockey for a four-yard gainer to the right hash mark, setting up the right-footed Hartley for a 32-yard field goal.

Rookie and second round draft pick T Charles Brown committed a grievous false start penalty, moving the ball back and creating a 37-yard kick, forbearing all sorts of five yards-shy missed kick nightmares.

Hartley's kick was tipped and partially blocked by DT Ray McDonald.  Whether it was his strong leg or the winds at his back, or both, the football knuckleballed through the uprights as time expired for a 25-22 win.

Brees finished 28 of 38 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but spent most of the game at unease against the 49ers' tough 3-4 alignment.  Carl Nicks admitted afterwards that the offensive line didn't play well and didn't recognize some looks well.  Brees was sacked twice but hit numerous times, and one of those sacks came went MLB Patrick Willis blitzed the gap between Nicks and Goodwin, and Bush's blitz pickup attempt was terrible.  LB Ahmad Brooks collected another sack when David Thomas' pass block was completely ineffective, and Brooks looped around for the free hit. 

When protection on Brees was good, the 49ers secondary bottled up the Saints' receivers downfield.  Robert Meachem and Lance Moore were held without a catch.  Devery Henderson caught three, all short passes that he turned upfield for 28 yards.  Colston caught his five passes for 67 yards doing the dirty work over the middle. Shockey seemed to be the only one capable of getting open in the middle, catching three for 37 yards. Brees hit eight targets (including himself) but was never better than on the game's final drive, which was executed well from a time management standpoint.

The Saints' defense created three turnovers but was at time out-physicaled by Gore, Davis and the 49er offense.  Each of those turnovers prevented 49er points, and a fourth turnover that the special teams picked up gave the Saints an extra three points that turned out to be crucial.  C David Baas's blooper shotgun snap on the game's first drive was crucial and brutal, altering the late-game chain of events. 

From an injury standpoint, Reggie Bush's leg injury appears to be serious.  CB Randall Gay left the game early with obvious signs of a concussion, a crucial loss with first round pick Patrick Robinson inactive.  Leigh Torrence was the primary nickelback and played well.

With Bush injured, RB DeShawn Wynn didn't get a carry but he may next week.  Of the four rushing attempts after Bush's injury, Thomas got three and Evans got one.  Preseason star RB Chris Ivory is expected to be out until at least week four with an MCL sprain in the exhibition finale.  RB Ladell Betts remains a free agent.

Newly-signed LB Danny Clark saw playing time, platooning with Dunbar.

Saints-49ers Notes: WR Jerry Rice, who haunted the Saints through the 80s and 90s, was honored at halftime and had his #80 jersey retired by the team... The Saints have beaten the 49ers six straight times, stretching back to 2001 when the teams were in the same division.  It was the first time ever the Saints beat the 49ers on Monday night, having lost all four games prior.  Monday night's 25-22 victory was only the eighth game in league history to be settled by that score... Rushing for 50 yards or fewer, the Saints were 1-7 against the 49ers before winning on Monday night with 50 yards rushing. When attempting more than 35 passes in a game against the 49ers, the Saints were a whopping 1-16 before Monday night...

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