August 12, 2011

Saints defense smothers 49ers in 24-3 preseason opener; third-round pick Patrick hurt

The Saints defense started the preseason off the way they wanted to - forcing a quick third and long, applying pressure to the quarterback, forcing a turnover and scoring a defensive touchdown.

Roman Harper's fumble return for a touchdown on the third play of the game was called back when refs ruled it was an incomplete pass, but it sure did feel a lot like 2009.

Showing off a newly-refurbished Superdome and their new free agent additions, the Saints hosted the 49ers and utterly drubbed them in the first half with a brutalizing defense.

Injury news from the game is limited but potentially heart-breaking: a fantastic showing by CB Johnny Patrick was cut short by a right knee injury, severity unknown yet.

Neither offense had much success - the first team offense had three possessions and no first downs, here is how it happened.

Both sides punted after three downs on their opening drives.  On both third downs, quarterbacks Alex Smith and Drew Brees were hit hard and forced to throw an interception.  On the Saints' first third down, LB Ahmad Brooks beat RT Jon Stinchcomb around Drew Brees in the backfield.  As Brees rolled left with three receivers in mind, Brooks snapped Brees' ankles and rolled him hard into the turf.  Not the way the Saints offense wanted to start the preseason.

On the 49ers' second drive, on second down, strong safety Roman Harper blindsided QB Alex Smith with a devastating sack, forcing a fumble at the 49ers luckily recovered.  They punted two plays later, unable to convert a 3rd and 11 deep in their own territory.

Undrafted rookie WR Joe Morgan returned the many punts of 49er P Andy Lee in the first half, and found 21 yards of shuffle-stepping daylight on the second return.  Morgan showed good escapability in the open field but benefited mostly from the lockout - the 49ers' special teams were roundly pathetic on this Friday night.

Pierre Thomas started at runningback and carried the ball on the first snap under center for the Saints.  First round pick RB Mark Ingram carried the ball on the second possession to loud cheers from the home stadium crowd.

Three of four healthy Saints starting runningbacks, Thomas, Ingram and Darren Sproles, were on the field on consecutive snaps in the second possession.  That will look a lot like what happens in the season, plus the presence of second year bruiser Chris Ivory.  Ivory is nursing a Lisfranc injury and sports hernia surgery.

Drew Brees showed early rust on the Saints' second third down attempt, choosing against dumping off to a wide open Sproles and instead badly underthrowing a shallow hook by TE Jimmy Graham.  A diving 49er S Donte Whitner got a hand on the pass for the breakup, and the Saints also went three and out.

The 49ers' third offensive possession was more of the same - DE Will Smith grabbed Smith's arm then smothered his legs for a sack on third and five.  Three possessions, nine snaps for Smith, and big hits on each third down conversion.  Exactly what Gregg Williams wanted.

The Saints' offense responded with more of the same - in his case Brees had time to sit back and pass on third and long, but a wide-open Robert Meachem dropped a perfectly-thrown spiral at the 20-yard line.  Meachem had to dive for the pass but it went through his open arms, a disappointing showing.  Three possessions, nine snaps, three punts for the Saints' offense.

Both offenses were so inept that QB Alex Smith began the 49ers fourth possession with 5:51 left in the first quarter.  More of the same.  Roman Harper obliterated Alex Smith on second down.  Smith managed to stay on his feet on third down, but threw a poor pass to Braylon Edwards that was broken up by Jabari Greer.  49ers P Andy Lee punted for the fourth time ten minutes into the game, each time standing in or near his end zone.

Brees' disappointing night was ended by Meachem's drop - Chase Daniel entered the game with 4:49 left in the game.  Newly-acquired Olin Kreutz remained in the game but Daniel mishandled his first snap.  On the next play Daniel rolled right with time and fired deep for Meachem.  S Madieu Williams dropped a fairly simple jumping interception and Meachem couldn't haul in the deflected pass.

On third down with just over four minutes left in the first quarter, we finally saw a first down.  Dropping back to pass, Daniel evaded the four-man rush, tucked the ball away and took off, sprinting up the field and towards the left sideline.  49er LB Navarro Bowman slammed Daniel to the ground two yards out of bounds, drawing a personal foul 15-yard penalty.

The Saints went to hurry-up offense trying to capitalize on the sudden and rare momentum as second- and third-stringers entered the game.  On third down Daniel went deep for Graham, just out of reach.  Rookie 49er LB Aldon Smith leapt over 5'5" Sproles in the backfield to hurry Daniel's throw.  K Garrett Hartley's 47-yard field goal hooked just inside the left upright to finally put some points on the board with 2:31 left in the first quarter.

The 49ers finally picked up their first 1st down with 1:51 left in the interminably-long quarter, when Smith found Braylon Edwards on a quick slant that beat CB Trumaine McBride out in space, a twelve yard gain. Two plays later, Alex Smith found himself with 3rd and 13 thanks to a false start penalty on Edwards, starting down the barrel of Gregg Williams' defense.  Smith retreated quickly and dumped it off to RB Anthony Dixon on a screen.  DT Mitch King dropped Dixon for a two yard loss, leaving Andy Lee to punt again from deep in his own territory.

That's when undrafted rookie WR Joe Morgan probably made the Saints' 53-man squad - sidestepping and hopping past terrible 49er tackling on his way to a 78-yard punt return touchdown.  Three plays into the second quarter, the lanky-legged Morgan made a number of good moves and found himself in the clear at the 49er 25-yard line, where CB Leigh Torrence escorted lucky #13 into the end zone.

Rookie QB Colin Kaepernick entered the game with 14 minutes left in the half, ending Alex Smith's dismal night.  The 49er starter finished the night 2/7 for 10 yards, sacked twice with numerous hits.  And while Brees was hit far less, his quarterback rating was exactly the same as Smith's, 39.6.

He handed off five straight plays, and the 49ers picked up their second first down of the night with a 13-yard scamper by rookie RB Kendall Hunter.

A block in the back penalty wiped out a great first down scramble by Kaepernick, setting up 3rd and 10.  Instead of another third down nightmare, Kaepernick found WR Lance Long open for 20 yards down the middle, beating McBride again.

With 9:30 left in the half and on first down at the Saint 41, the Saints defense reclaimed all momentum with a punishing series of plays.

A scrambling Kaepernick was dropped for a one yard loss by DE Jeff Charleston and others.  On second down, DT Swanson Miller pushed OL Adam Snyder into Kaepernick and LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar sacked Kaepernick with the help of the 49er interior line, which collapsed on top of their quarterback.  Kaepernick fumbled, T Joe Staley recovered. On third down, DT Mitch King blasted up the middle and dropped Kaepernick at the knees for the third straight sack.  P Andy Lee punted again, the line of scrimmage at his own 38.

A holding penalty on T Zach Strief helped snuff out Chase Daniel's second drive, and two rushes by Ingram netted two yards and on third and 18, Ingram gained only four yards on an ugly-looking screen by the backup offensive line.  Morstead punted again and the 49ers took over at their own 31 with 5:15 left.

DT Swanson Miller made a good push to be the fourth defensive tackle in the rotation behind Sedrick Ellis, Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin, batting down a pass on Kaepernick's next pass.  Miller, a second year player who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Browns last year, arrived on the Saints' practice squad in December 2010.  Miller did a great job against former Saint Jonathan Goodwin, who played into the second quarter for his new team.  Rookie DT Dexter Larimore showed good range pursuing Kaepernick near the end of the second quarter.

With four minutes left in the half, Daniel got the Saints going with an 18-yard sideline strike against zone coverage to WR Courtney Roby.  Daniel showed improved arm strength down the field on that play and is developing nicely behind Brees.

RB Joique Bell entered the game as the fourth runningback for the Saints, carrying for three yards.  On third and seven, Daniel then hit second year WR Montez Billings streaking over the show middle down.  Billings, a preseason star from 2010, turned it up field for a 25-yard gain.  Bell then plowed into a pile and rode a couple thousand pounds of humanity nine yards down the field to the 49er 20 yard line.  On 3rd and 1, Daniel threw complete to TE Tory Humphrey in the short right, picking up six yards and the first down.

Mark Ingram closed off the last 14 yards of the drive, taking a draw up the middle, running through two arm tackles and spinning out of a low diving helmet-tackle by 49er S CJ Spillman on his way to the end zone.  Give Ingram credit for a strong downhill running style, but the 49er defense showed pathetic tackling form on the play.  Spillman's helmet-first, knee-level dive tackling attempt could have easily injured Ingram, instead, Ingram posterized him for a 17-0 lead.

S Jonathon Amaya, the only tangible product of the Reggie Bush trade so far, pushed TE Delaney Walker out of  bounds late in the half.  Walker haunted the Saints in last year's tight matchup in San Francisco, so its not surprising that the 49ers finally thought to engage him in this exhibition game.  Kaepernick took off for a 28 yard scramble down to the Saint 34 yard line, but LB Jonathan Casillas collected a sack on the next play, the Saints' sixth sack of the half.

David Akers hit a long 59-yard field goal, with one second left.  The 49ers had to kick off, and chose to try an onsides kick in this preseason game.  Amaya alertly fell on it and survived the pile to end the half.

Daniel entered the game and on the first snap of the second half handed off to Morgan on an end-around.  Morgan lost three yards when Aldon Smith stayed home and dropped him with ease.  Joquie Bell was the runningback to start the half, and picked up six yards on a draw up the middle.  On third down, Daniel fired incomplete for Billings, and the Saints went three and out.  49er WR Ronald Johnson made a good return on Morstead's punt, with third round pick Johnny Patrick dropping him near midfield after a 23-yard return.

Patrick was a special teams key for the Saints in the first half, keeping the 49ers' many punt returns capped and neutralized.  Billed as an excellent gunner on punt coverage, the rookie from Louisville is living up to his reputation.

With the second string defense, CB Leigh Torrence was in on a handful of good pass breakups and had a strong showing.

Daniel's second drive of the third quarter started poorly, as he stumbled away from pressure, fumbled the ball, recovered it, and was smashed by a number of bodies diving for it.  Joique Bell picked up eight yards on the next carry, but on 3rd and 8 Daniel pump faked and scrambled for no gain.

On the ensuing punt, the 49ers finally had some success on special teams, getting to and blocking Thomas Morstead's punt.  Rookie LB Kenny Rowe blocked it then picked up the ball.  But alas, the 49ers had 12 men on the field.  Morstead punted again, booming it into the end zone.

Casillas was ultra-active in the second and third quarters, and in the middle third he went up high to reject a scrambling Kaepernick's pass attempt.  Casillas showed his speed to track down Kaepernick in the flat.  On the next play, Johnny Patrick collapsed in hard to flip and tackle RB Xavier Omon after a very short gain.  This is what preseason should be about- showcasing a team's young talent.

On the next play though, Patrick playing in the slot missed a tackle on WR Kyle Williams, allowing him to escape up the middle for 25 yards.  On the next play, first round pick DE Cameron Jordan pressured Kaepernick into delivering a late, low screen pass attempt.  Back to return the 49ers' next punt was undrafted rookie safety Isa Abdul-Quddus fielded a fair catch punt.

Joique Bell showed great balance and fight against poor tackling by the 49ers, turning initial contact near the line into a 12-yard gain.  On the next play, Roby climbed the ladder and went up high to catch a Chase Daniel pass at the first down marker, a good showing for Roby whose role as a kick return specialist is in danger.  With kickoffs at the 35 yard line, no NFL will keep a reserve around for the sole role as a kickoff returner - a job that Roby's cousin, RB Darren Sproles, will likely take on.

Veteran OT Zach Strief, recently re-signed, played well into the game at right tackle, doing a great job blocking against the 49er reserves.  Strief showed off his alertness and experience by sprinting to his left to dive block a pass rusher sneaking up on Daniel's back.

Mark Ingram made an appearance late in the third quarter to drop a pass streaking towards the sidelines.  A good throw by Daniel but a tough catch, Ingram had to pivot and make a running-backwards catch, but a reception nevertheless that other Saints runningbacks have been able to haul in with ease.  On the next play, the Saints ran a sweep right with Ingram on fourth down, but he was walled off and out of bounds at the 49er 28 yard line, three yards short of the line.

Johnny Patrick showed well again, crashing in and smashing into Omon to drop him at the line.  Patrick is playing very well against the run in this game, showing the desired willingness to hit.  Patrick went low on the tackle, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar arrived to smash Omon high.  On the next play, Omon ran away from Patrick and Dunbar, and found 17 yards on the ground as Trumaine McBride showed off a lack of willingness to crash in and hit.

Patrick went on down on that play, with doctors looking at his right leg.  A serious injury would be a big letdown for the Saints, with starting CB Tracy Porter already hurting, especially because of Patrick's good showing tonight.

Abdul-Quddus returned the next punt, unwisely fielding it at his own five yard line, but then turning it upfield for a 25-yard return to the Saint 30.

After a quick Saints punt, S Jonathan Amaya showed up, blitzing in hard from the slot and dropping Omon at the line.  Omon has been absolutely hammered tonight, repeatedly, by Saints defensive backs near his own line of scrimmage.  Two plays later CB Terrail Lambert picked an errant, deep throw by Kaepernick, undercutting and catching the ball in front of WR Ronald Johnson.  Lambert, two years out of Notre Dame, returned it to the 49er 38 yard line.

Chase Daniel went to work with the good field position and 12:16 left in the game.  Joique Bell made a great one-handed grab of a dart screen pass, then WR Andy Tanner got open in the deep third for a 23-yard gain. A new runningback for the Saints, Chris Taylor, picked up five yards up the middle then TE Tory Humphrey caught and turned upfield for 7 yards and a first down.  At the 49er 10, Daniel fired for six yards to Roby and then Taylor cashed it in with the same play that worked for Ingram - a draw up the middle made the game 24-3 with 8:33 left.

Taylor was then the second man down to lay a hit on KR Kendall Hunter on the return, a key for any fifth runningback hoping to make this team.  Behind Thomas, Ingram, Sproles and Ivory, the Saints may not keep a fifth or sixth runningback.

The Saints defense forced another punt on fourth and 3 but veteran Alex Brown made a rookie mistake and jumped offsides on the punt, giving Kaepernick a fresh set of downs with 6:11 left in the game.  A rookie would get the ball right back when seventh round pick LB Nate Bussey intercepted a seam pass.

Southpaw Sean Canfield came in at quarterback for the final five minutes of the game, his first pass attempt was a rollout to his left and a good, hard dart down the sideline for Joe Morgan, who dropped a must-catch ball.  Canfield in shotgun drew a delay of game penalty, then allowed Morgan atonement.  Rolling left again, he scrambled to the sideline and fired a pass straight up the sideline.  Usually an ill-advised move, the lefty's pass found Morgan 21 yards downfield.

Three straight carries by Taylor brought the Saints to the 49er 30 yard line and the clock to the two minute warning.  Three more carries by the bruising Taylor picked up another 14 yards, and Canfield kneeled away the final seconds of the clock.

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