Hard-hitting defense turned Saints upside down
With one crushing first-quarter hit Saturday, Donte Whitner changed the direction of the wind at Candlestick Park and took the wind out of Pierre Thomas and the New Orleans Saints. Setting the tone with punishing defense, Whitner and the 49ers kept bopping and dropping Saints for the next three hours, putting the hurt on a resilient opponent that kept popping off the mat but never quite recovered.
Sure, the amazing Drew Brees and the never-out-of-it New Orleans offense was still there at the end, making the big plays for which they are famous, taking their first lead in the waning moments and forcing the Niners to dig deep for their own offensive heroics to pull out an incredible 36-32 victory in a NFC playoff semifinal of extraordinary swings and excitement.
But a late flurry of yards and points by the most prolific offense in NFL history ultimately proved to be not enough for the Saints, because a San Francisco defense that made its own statement this season put New Orleans down early and kept it there most of the game.
These Bay City Boppers took the lead of Whitner, their energetic and edgy free safety, who delivered the signature blow of Saturday’s slugfest, just as New Orleans’ record-setting offense was blowing down the field with the game’s opening possession.
“I told myself I was going to hit everything moving out there today,” Whitner said. “I was going to be extremely physical, even if it was my own guys. Luckily, I didn’t have to hit my own guys.”
Lucky for them, but not so lucky for Thomas or the Saints.
Whitner already had put a hit on Jimmy Graham that momentarily took the Pro Bowl tight end out of the game, then another a few plays later on scatback Darren Sproles.
But it didn’t seem to matter against the Saints’ offensive machine, which had taken the opening kickoff and sailed down the field, Brees completing each of his first four passes to move New Orleans 73 yards to the doorstep of the San Francisco end zone and a first-strike score.
The Saints were about to go ahead, and the immediate thought crossing the mind was that the 49ers might never be able to catch up. And as Thomas took a third-down pass from Brees in the right flat, it appeared he was headed for the end zone and an early 7-0 Saints lead.
But then Whitner crashed the party, and the game never again would be the same.
Thomas, a compact load at 215 pounds, was at the 2-yard line with a full head of forward steam when the 208-pound Whitner arrived with malevolent force and intent.
Thomas went not an inch farther. He looked like he’d been shot as Whitner rocked his world, with Thomas crumpling to the ground in his tracks and losing the football on the way down. Linebacker Patrick Willis recovered the fumble.
The Saints had been stoned cold. They went from taking the lead to losing their starting running back with a zero still on the scoreboard.
“It turned the game around, it changed all the momentum of the football game and got the game kicked off right,” Whitner said. “Whenever you can hit somebody and dislodge them from the football and get the crowd involved, get your teammates involved, it does a lot for the football team. And that’s what typically hard-hitting football will do.”
That’s what it has done for the 49ers throughout this turnaround season during which their defense has arrived as one the NFL’s best and most fearsome units.
And, boy, that’s what it did to the stunned Saints, who needed nearly the next three quarters to recover.
From that momentum-changer, the 49ers shot to a 17-0 lead just minutes into the second quarter, with the Saints appearing seriously out of whack.
New Orleans went three-and-out on its next possession, and the 49ers answered with a touchdown two plays later. Brees followed with an uncharacteristic interception into the teeth of San Francisco’s secondary, setting up another Niners touchdown three plays later.
Whitner’s hit was still reverberating into the second quarter and having a ripple effect throughout the Saints. Thomas was done for the day with a head injury, forcing the Saints to take Sproles, their No. 2 running back behind Thomas, off his duties as their kick returner, where Sproles is one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL.
Sproles’ replacement, Courtney Roby, promptly fumbled the ensuing kickoff after being hit by Madieu Williams, setting up three more points for the Niners, who put 17 points on the scoreboard in a span of fewer than three minutes.
The 49ers shook the Saints for five turnovers, which obviously made a difference in the outcome, taking away opportunities from that explosive New Orleans offense, never allowing the Saints to get into any kind of rhythm where they could grasp control of the game.
The Saints inevitably came back, because that’s what they do, and certainly what they are equipped to do. But the Niners kept the pressure on, kept the hurt on with their aggressive brand of intimidating defense.
Brees was sacked three times and hit 11 times. And the game was all on him for the Saints, because San Francisco’s top-ranked rushing defense squashed New Orleans’ sixth-ranked rushing game, rendering the Saints obsolete on the ground, where they finished with just 37 yards rushing on 14 carries, with their longest run gaining just seven yards. The Saints finished with two first downs rushing.
NFL Defensive MVP candidate Justin Smith was a beast, as always, in perhaps the biggest game of his career. Willis and NaVorro Bowman played and hit like the All-Pro linebackers they are in the middle of the defense. Dashon Goldson, Ahmad Brooks and a host of others also laid the wood, just like they have done all season.
“We wanted to come out and play our style of football, which is playing physical, particularly starting early in the game,” Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “We play physical, we run to the ball, we don’t try and do anything too fancy. We try and play defense the old-fashioned, hard-school way. Our guys were humming.”
The buzz could be heard long after the shadows fell on Candlestick Park late Saturday afternoon, and probably still is ringing today in the heads of the beaten and battered Saints.