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Tag:Jim Harbaugh
Posted on: January 26, 2012 2:25 pm
Edited on: January 26, 2012 4:31 pm
 

Is Schiano a beneficiary of the Harbaugh Effect?

There aren't many college coaches who have successfully transitioned to the NFL. (AP/Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

The NFL coaching scrap heap is littered with accomplished college coaches who couldn't make the transition to the professional game. But it only takes one success story to shift the perception from "those guys can't cut it" to "where can we find another one?"

Bucs hire Schiano

Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco last offseason after leading Stanford to 12 wins, including an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Twelve months later, the 49ers were a few plays away from going to the Super Bowl after a 13-3 regular season and an NFC West title.

And unlike Stanford, Harbaugh didn't have an Andrew Luck-type franchise quarterback under center in San Francisco. Yes, Alex Smith was a former first-overall pick, but his career up till Harbaugh's arrival could kindly be described as pedestrian. Now the 49ers want him back in 2012 and there may be some competition for his services should he make it to free agency.

“I feel so much different than in years past, just the sideline -- the sideline atmosphere is so much different," Smith said before Sunday's NFC Championship game. "When bad things happen, when plays get made against us, things like that, the guys are just so confident.”

It's that type of confidence that may have led the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to bypass the typical NFL coaching search, one that has recently included interviewing former NFL big names, up-and-coming coordinators and a few dark horse assistants. And instead, refocus their efforts at the college level, in the hopes of unearthing the next Jim Harbaugh.

This explains Oregon coach Chip Kelly's brief dalliance with the Bucs. And it may explain why they ultimately settled on Rutgers' Greg Schiano after Kelly got cold feet. (The elephant in the room, of course, is that Schiano, unlike Harbaugh and Kelly, hasn't had quite their level of success in recent seasons.)

                                           (Getty Images)
Schiano leaves Rutgers with a 67-67 record, but it took him five years to build the program from one of the worst in the country to annually competitive in the Big East. He was 49-28 in his last six seasons, and if it's one thing the Bucs need, it's someone who knows how to build a winner. The big question: will the front office and fans will have the patience to wait around.

If Schiano's looking for inspiration from his college brethren who made it work in the NFL … well, the pickings are slim. In addition to Harbaugh, three coaches stand out:

Jimmy Johnson

Johnson was the first coach Jerry Jones hired after he bought the Cowboys and promptly ushered Tom Landry out the door. Tough circumstances to walk into after leading the Miami Hurricanes in the '80s, but he went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls before leaving Dallas for the Dolphins, and ultimately a gig as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports.

Barry Switzer

He was Oklahoma's head coach from 1973-1988 and amassed a 157-29-4 record, including three national championships. He resigned before the 1989 season and after the NCAA had placed the Sooners on probation. Five years later, Jones pegged Switzer to replace Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. He went 12-4 in his first two seasons, with the Cowboys winning the Super Bowl following the 1995 season. He resigned three years later and left the NFL with a 45-26 career mark.

Tom Coughlin

Coughlin got his start at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he served as the head coach from 1970-73, and after seven seasons as an assistant with Syracuse, and two more with Boston College, Coughlin served as an assistant coach for three NFL teams from 1984-1990. He then returned to college, accepting the head-coaching gig at BC. In three years, he led the Eagles to a 41-39 record, including a 1993 win over top-ranked Notre Dame.

Coughlin was hired by the expansion Jaguars in 1995 and he's been an NFL head coach ever since. In February 2008, he led the Giants to a Super Bowl XLII victory over the then-undefeated Patriots. He'll go for Lombardi Trophy No. 2 when New York again faces New England on February 5.

So what does this mean for Schiano? History hasn't been kind to college coaches making the jump to the NFL, but there are exceptions. It's not much, but it's all the Glazer have right now.

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Posted on: January 24, 2012 1:59 pm
Edited on: January 24, 2012 2:00 pm
 

Harbaugh: Bradshaw non-fumble like tuck rule

Harbaugh: 'In my opinion, that was a fumble." (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has exceeded everyone's expectations in his first year with the 49ers. He led them to a 13-3 record, the NFC West title, and San Francisco was possibly one play away from the Super Bowl. No, not that play, the Ahmad Bradshaw fumble that wasn't.

With 2:29 to go in the fourth quarter and the scored tied 17-17, the Giants running back lost the ball -- except that the officials ruled that Bradshaw's forward progress had already been stopped. The play was blown dead and anything subsequent to that -- including a fumble -- didn't matter.

The Giants would go on to win in overtime.

On Monday, Harbaugh compared the Bradshaw ruling to a four-letter word that the NFL would probably prefer never be uttered again: tuck. As in "tuck rule."

"In my opinion, that was a fumble. I'm sure the league will defend it and the officials will defend it. But to me, that play was still going on," Harbaugh said during his news conference Monday, according to CBSSports.com Rapid Reporter Michael Erler. "There was still struggling by Bradshaw. ... I felt like it was analogous with the tuck rule."

Judge for yourself:


Was Bradshaw's forward progress stopped before he fumbled?

The "tuck rule" game turned 10 years old last week and it's still hard for many of the Raiders players and coaches involved to talk about it.

Just like the Raiders-Pats game from January 2001, the NFL confirmed afterwards that the officials made the right call, citing Rule 7, Section 2 (b) of the NFL Rule Book which covers "dead balls": "An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended: (b) when a runner is held or otherwise restrained so that his forward progress ends." That was the immediate ruling yesterday, which is not subject to a replay review."

This isn't tuck-rule magnitude type stuff although we're certain that doesn't make Harbaugh feel any better. The problem with forward progress is that, like most rules, it's not consistently enforced. And that, no doubt, is the source of Harbaugh's frustration.

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Posted on: January 18, 2012 5:20 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 12:16 pm
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Giants NFC CG preview

Can Smith and Harbaugh work some more magic Sunday? (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

These teams gave us a very good game back in Week 10 from which we came away truly believing for the first time that San Francisco’s old school style might actually still work in today’s pass-happy NFL. However, not much can be drawn on from that game, as the Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw, hadn’t yet gelled on the O-line and were still trying to figure things out in their defensive back seven.

New York is healthy now and, as you’ve undoubtedly heard a thousand times, “playing with confidence”. Confidence does not breed success, it stems from success. Simply put, the Giants are a much better football team this time around.


1. Tougher task for Alex Smith
Alex Smith’s fourth quarter heroics last week might have been career-changing, at least pertaining to his public image. But lost in the excitement was the fact that Smith and his teammates struggled somewhat to identify blitzes throughout most of the contest.

And, until the final few minutes, Smith wasn’t comfortable against heavy coverage in the red zone. He caught fire once he started recognizing the one-on-one matchups for Vernon Davis BEFORE the snap (which wasn’t hard against the Saints’ Cover 0’s). Thus, after the snap, he didn’t have to worry about making the right decision – he just had to worry about throwing a good ball.  (To his credit, he did this extremely well.)

This week, Smith will have to worry about both. Given the mediocrity of San Francisco’s offensive tackles, the Giants’ four-man rush should be able to get pressure and force the Niners to keep backs and tight ends in to block (or at least chip). When the Giants do blitz, it’s usually a zone pass-rushing concept involving a linebacker (see Michael Boley’s two sacks at Green Bay).

Thus, all game Smith will be throwing into a more crowded secondary and without quickly defined reads. Unless Joe Staley and Anthony Davis play the game of their lives, Smith will also be throwing under some duress. Post-snap decision-making from a crowded pocket has always been Smith’s greatest weakness.

As he’s done all season, Jim Harbaugh will ameliorate Smith’s deficiencies by giving him simplified quick throws off three-step drops, utilizing play-action and, perhaps, calling throws on first down (where the coverages tend to be more basic). The Niners did this with great success in Week 10. In fact, they did it was great success throughout the season; Smith’s passer rating on first down was 101.6.

But at some point, just like last week, Smith is going to have to make a big-time throw in an obvious passing situation.


After dominating the Green Bay Packers last week, the New York Giants will travel to Candlestick Park to square off against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. Join NFL.com's Pat Kirwan and Jason Horowitz as they break down this matchup.

2. Smith’s targets
Smith isn’t the only passing game contributor who faces a tougher challenge this week. Michael Crabtree will likely be shadowed by Corey Webster, an outstanding all-around cover corner. Because Crabtree isn’t fast enough to run away from most corners, he has to beat them with body control and agility. Often, his best routes drag over the middle. When his routes go inside, it’s easy for the Giants to give Webster help (not that he needs much).

Smith’s top target, Vernon Davis, won’t be facing Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins in man coverage. Instead, he’ll go against Antrel Rolle, a more athletic cover artist whom the Arizona Cardinals originally drafted in the first round as a cornerback (the Saints drafted Jenkins as a corner, as well, but after a year they admitted what had been apparent from Day One: the stiff-hipped ex-Buckeye was better suited for safety).

And unlike last week, Davis won’t have just one defender to beat, as it’s highly unlikely the Giants will play only man and have Rolle constantly defend the 250-pound tight end one-on-one.

3. Gotta make it Gorey
Expect the run-first Niners to go back to the ground this week. Frank Gore got just 13 carries against New Orleans; he needs at least 22 against New York. If Gore can pound the rock against Perry Fewell’s big nickel defense (two linebackers, two safeties and Rolle playing a utility role as a third safety/linebacker/slot corner), the Giants may decide to go back to their base 4-3.

That would make for a less athletic front seven and present a greater possibility for Davis to draw matchups against linebackers.

Let’s keep it simple and also remember that, regardless of what the defense is doing, running is San Francisco’s bread and butter. They’re built around the power run, with booming and mobile left guard Mike Iupati pulling to the right of Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin and working in unison with lead-blockers Bruce Miller and Justin Peelle (or Delanie Walker if he can get healthy).

That’s the formula that got this team here. And it happens to be the formula that can keep New York’s white hot quarterback off the field.

4. Giants passing game
New York’s rushing attack is nowhere near as dreadful as it was in September, October and November, but against the league’s stingiest run defense, it still can’t be counted on. The Giants will have to ride the golden right arm of Eli Manning. He isn’t facing a porous pass defense like he did a week ago. San Francisco has three corners who can stay with New York’s frighteningly athletic wide receivers.

In the last meeting, Carlos Rogers was sensational defending the slot, making a handful of great jumps on the ball and finishing with two interceptions. Rogers is good enough to handle Victor Cruz.

What really stood out in the first divisional round game was how well the Niner defensive backs – particularly safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner – tackled. Considering the DB’s penchant for forcing fumbles, the Giants may be hesitant to put Hakeem Nicks and Cruz in the catch-and-run situations that they enjoy.

5. San Fran’s defensive line
The 49ers were able to break down the Giants’ pass protection in the last meeting, but again, this Giants line has improved immensely since then.

Still, Aldon Smith, with his explosive first step and startlingly quick hands, is a nightmare matchup for David Diehl on the left side, while Kareem McKenzie will need a little help against the speed of Ahmad Brooks on the right. Then there’s Justin Smith, who makes four or five fantastic penetrative plays a game.

In addition to rushing the passer, the Niners’ front three/four is fast and athletic enough to hunt down screen passes outside the numbers. That’s assuming Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman don’t hunt them down first.

Against this dynamic front seven, the Giants won’t be able to count heavily on Ahmad Bradshaw or ancillary options like Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum. Manning and his wide receivers will have to find ways to make big plays.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 15, 2012 8:14 pm
Edited on: January 16, 2012 9:27 am
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Best Super Bowl matchup?

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action, figures out the winners and losers and asks the big questions. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Listen to the Pick-Six Podcast Divisional Round recap below and don't forget to subscribe via iTunes.

Ranking the Possible Super Bowl Matchups

Although there were some fairly drama-free games in the NFL playoffs thus far, there's no question we've been treated to some serious story-lining; Alex Smith's redemption alone was worth the price of admission. And with only three games remaining in the NFL season, we've narrowed the group of teams down a group of four elite squads that should produce an action-packed storyline.

But how do the matchups stack up in terms of watchability, entertainment value and general awesomeness? Here's my ranking:

1. Patriots vs. Giants
It's impossible to underscore how dramatic this matchup would be: after the Giants lost to the undefeated Packers 38-35, there was chatter of how this season looked eerily familiar to 2007 ... when the Giants upended the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in a game that was one of the most memorable Super Bowls in NFL history.

That was the last time the Patriots made the Super Bowl and since then, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have come under fire for not winning playoff games. The Pats won't be worried about their perfect season anymore, of course, but the Giants look very similar to the team that won the Super Bowl in 2007, thanks to a dominant pass rush and Eli Manning truly elevating his game.

The storyline, which would consist primarily of the word "revenge," might get a bit stale, but there would be an incredible amount of players with stories from that year and an ax to grind.

If you root for drama, star power and some trash talk, this is the matchup you want to see.

2. Ravens vs. Giants
The last time these teams faced off in the Super Bowl, Ray Lewis was Super Bowl MVP and the Baltimore defense had their way with Kerry Collins, picking him off four times en route to a 34-7 blowout.

Also: Tiki Barber was relevant, if that tells you anything about how long ago that was.

From a football perspective, this could be a high-scoring game that will go either way; a good game from Joe Flacco would probably result in a Ravens win, but no one will bank on that, so the Giants will be favored (maybe 4.5 points?).

Both teams are explosive enough on offense, but even more explosive on defense. We'd see points, but we'd also see plenty of smashmouth football. If someone got out to a big lead, the game wouldn't necessarily be over -- seeing Eli lead a comeback against the vaunted Ravens defense would be entertaining as all get-out.

And the chatter leading up to the game would be simply amazing. Jason Pierre-Paul, Antrel Rolle, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis? If you're a media member, you should be drooling at the quotability factor for this one.

3. Patriots vs. 49ers
The fact that these two teams play such contrasting styles could set the Super Bowl up for an interesting and perplexing matchup, but it's hard to believe that the Pats would be favored by less than a touchdown in this scenario.

Maybe San Francisco could pull off the upset: we've already seen that they can keep Drew Brees and the Saints down if given two weeks to prepare. And they'll absolutely be given the "no one believes in us" card if such a matchup takes place.

Here's the problem though: as good as Alex Smith looked on Saturday late, he didn't look like Brady did later that night. The 49ers are one of the few teams in the NFL that can, theoretically, match up in their base formation against the Pats tight ends.

But if Angry Brady show up again (and, we have to assume he showed up against the Ravens if they're here), this game could look like the last time the 49ers made the Super Bowl, only in reverse.

4. Ravens vs. 49ers
In terms of pure on-field entertainment value, this is a nightmare situation. Both the 49ers and Ravens succeed by running the ball and playing defense so it makes zero sense for this matchup to actually happen, given the importance of quarterback play in the NFL and the high-powered offenses we've seen so far in 2012.

Yes, their coaches are freaking brothers and there's no question that Harbaugh Bowl 2.0 -- the pair dueled it out on Thanksgiving night -- would provide an incredible amount of entertainment in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

But how quickly would the "They're Related!" storyline get old? It might take a day, maybe two tops. Trust me, with that much free time you'll be sick of it before media day even happens, and don't even get me started on the players.

There's some star power here, but it's primarily on the defensive end with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith (if anyone knows who he is anyway) and the like.

Joe Flacco versus Alex Smith? Yuck. We'd be treated to a defensive battle along the likes of that 16-6 Ravens victory on Turkey Day. Or the BCS Championship Game.

On the bright side, at least the teams would've gotten there through a playoff. (Read: legitimately.)

Winners

Alex Smith: Sports are funny, because moments -- not careers -- ultimately tend to define certain players. Smith is one of those players and a pair of moments on Saturday -- his 28-yard touchdown run and then "The Snatch" in the end zone -- redefined his career. He could blossom into one of the next great NFL quarterbacks or he could sign a big contract and become a bust again. It won't matter, because Saturday's game will always remain a turning point of some point. Smith likely won't ever justify his draft slot or being taken over Aaron Rodgers, but Saturday was an unbelievable redemption story.

Eli Manning
: Manning was, in my brain, approximately 145 for 146 on third down on Sunday night against the Packers. Every time Green Bay got him in a bad spot, the dude sat back in the pocket, waited until things opened up, and drilled a beautiful pass to a wide-open receiver. He's had an amazing season that could've been even better, and he's finally getting the credit he deserves.

Marques Colston
: Colston's set to be an unrestricted free agent, and the lasting memory he provided potential suitors was an outstanding effort, as he caught nine balls for 136 yards and a toe-tapping touchdown that was basically the only time a Saints player got deep in the first half on Saturday. If the Saints don't reach a long-term deal with Drew Brees, they'll have to franchise him, and that means Colston can get loose on the market and make a pile of money.

Bill Belichick: All season long the chatter was that Belichick's defense would hinder the Patriots from winning a Super Bowl. Maybe that's true -- we'll find out next Sunday against Baltimore. But the the Broncos were supposed to have a physical running game right? And the blew up the Steelers defense? Right? Belichick showed why he's a defensive genius and one of the all-time great coaches in that blowout.

Hakeem Nicks: Thanks to Victor Cruz' breakout season in 2011, Nicks kind of got loss in the shuffle. He shouldn't have: his performance against Green Bay was stunning, and broke off a 66-yard, gazelle-like touchdown run and then broke the Packers spirit with a Hail-Mary catch at the end of the half. His final line? Seven catches, 165 yards and two touchdowns.

Jenkins got abused by Davis all day long. (Getty Images)

Losers

Malcolm Jenkins: You might want to pick on Roman Harper for getting worked over by Vernon Davis in the end zone on the final touchdown, but Jenkins is the reason the Niners even had a shot. First there's the teardrop Alex Smith dropped over Jenkins into Davis' outstretched arms before his now famous touchdown run. Then there's Jenkins coverage on Davis across the middle when he picked up 47 yards on the 49ers final drive. Burnt toast anyone? (Screenshots via Dave Cariello of Canal Street Chronicles.)

Jacoby Jones
:
Dude tried to field a punt off a hop inside his own 20 on the Texans second possession of the game, didn't field it cleanly, got rocked, fumbled the ball and gave the Ravens a free touchdown. In case you missed it, the Ravens won by seven points.

Cam Cameron
: With the Texans holding two timeouts, 3:04 left in the game and the Ravens up four and in the Texans red zone, Cameron called for two pass plays. Both passes were incomplete and the Ravens kicked a field goal with 2:56 left. They burned eight seconds and didn't make the Texans use a timeout. Then on third and a half-inch with 1:38 remaining, Cameron called for a Vonta Leach run, instead of having his fullback block for Ray Rice. There never should've been enough time for a second possession for Houston in the first place.

NFL Officials: For two consecutive weekends, the NFL officiating has been, quite simply, terrible. The guys in stripes have a really difficult job, made even more difficult in today's world where jerks take pictures of their televisions and post them to Twitter. But during the NFL playoffs, the quality of work done by the zebras has really highlighted some of the flaws in the way in-game rules are applied in football. Something's gotta change.

Tim Tebow: We'd also accept John Elway or John Fox here, because the offseason's going to be miserable for all three of them despite winning a division title and a playoff game. Tebow's poor showing against the Patriots means everyone's got to wonder if he can be a "real" quarterback for the Broncos and as such, every time Fox, Elway or Tebow get anywhere near a microphone, they'll be asked about Tebow's status. It will unquestionably be annoying by the time next season starts.

State Farm: You guys really going to keep running the "Discount Double Check" commercials for the next month? Because that's going to be more awkward than Pepsi Max running Rex Ryan halftime speeches after the Jets miss the playoffs. (Please don't raise my insurance rates though.)

The Big Questions

 
Plenty of questions still remain about Flacco. (AP)

1. Did Joe Flacco answer his critics on Sunday?
Nope. The playcalling was bad and the Texans have a really good defense, but Flacco looked pretty awful all things considered. His two touchdown passes were nice, but were it not for some sick catches from his receivers, Flacco's numbers (14 of 27 for 176 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) would've been much worse. It's not all his fault this game was so close, but an elite performance would've resulted in a blowout.

2. Should Alex Smith have fallen down before scoring late Saturday?
Yes. This debate livened up our Twitter followers on Saturday evening, but the reality is, with the 49ers down 24-23 and Smith should've fallen to the ground, let the Niners melt the clock, force the Saints to use their timeouts, and the kick a field goal with, in the best-case scenario, no time remaining. Instead, Drew Brees got the ball back with 1:51 remaining and had time to score. Of course, he also scored too quickly, giving Smith time to cement his comeback legacy in San Francisco, but that's beside the point. Smith going down could have iced the game away, we just wouldn't have gotten all that drama.

3. Is it time for Gregg Williams to get out of town?
Probably. Williams shouldn't be the scapegoat for New Orleans lack of success, because he called a heck of a game on Saturday against the 49ers. With the Saints offense struggling, Williams defense kept the Saints in the game by limiting the 49ers points off turnovers. But because Smith drove the Niners to two scores in the last 150 seconds, you can bet that Williams will get a lot of the blame. He's got an easy out by joining Jeff Fisher with the Rams and he should probably jump on that.

4. Do we need full-time referees?
NO. Wilson and I batted this idea around some on chat (and talked about it on the podcast), but why would giving referees more money and job security equate to an incentive for them to be right more often? It doesn't. Giving them more time to learn the rules and properly apply them? Yeah, that would be great. It would also be great if the NFL made applying the rules in a fashion that doesn't screw up the game more practical, but that's another story for another day.

5. Is being a wild-card in the playoffs better?
Maybe? I dunno. I do know this: you look at the Packers and you look at the Giants. One team basically got three weeks off and cooled down from an unholy hot streak. The other team squeaked into the playoffs and got hot, playing their best football at the right time. The latter team, the Giants, are still alive.

6. Is Tom Coughlin still on the hot seat?

LOL. Also, LOL at Giants fans who wanted Coughlin fired and/or put on the hot seat when the Giants were losing to the Saints-49ers-Packers in succession, with a surprising win against the Patriots mixed in. Give the dude an extension already, he deserves it.

7. Will you please provide a picture of Andy Reid in the Punt/Pass/Kick contest?
Thought you'd never ask. Every single time the contest winners are shown on television, I can't help but think of this amazing photo:



8. How good can the 49ers offense be?

Very good. I think -- the progression of Vernon Davis and Alex Smith over the course of the season leads me to believe Harbaugh would be smart to bring his signal caller back, keep some continuity and let the pieces on the offense grow into the system even more, like they did throughout the year. It's quite possible they could end up being potent.

GIF O' THE WEEK

Decent catch by Arian Foster here:

Worth 1,000 Words


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Posted on: January 14, 2012 9:47 pm
Edited on: January 14, 2012 10:01 pm
 

49ers win over Saints an all-time great

An emotional Alex Smith celebrates after the 49ers win Saturday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

With the ability to instantly weigh-in on sporting events in real time a big factor in entertainment consumption, it's easy to get ahead of ourselves and declare something an "instant classic." But make no mistake: that's exactly what Saturday night's 36-32 victory for San Francisco was.

"This is big for us," tight end Vernon Davis said afterward. "It's history. It's legendary."

Vernon's more right than he'll probably know for a few hours. They say history repeats itself, right? Well, watch Davis game-winning touchdown catch and then tell us whether or not it reminds you of this:



It should, because although the down, distance and time remaining were different, the situation was very much similar. No one's going to mistake Alex Smith for Joe Montana or Steve Young.

They shouldn't. But Smith deserves an immense amount of credit for leading the Niners on two career-defining drives in the final three minutes of Saturday's game.

Of course, the first one came after the drama really started. After David Akers kicked a field goal with 7:36 remaining, everyone wondered whether the Niners could come up with one more stop of Brees. They couldn't -- Brees hit the previously quiet Darren Sproles for a 44-yard touchdown and suddenly it was like the impressive 49ers defensive effort was wasted.

Smith saw that it wasn't, arching a beautiful 37-yard pass to Davis on second down and getting within Akers range. After an absurd 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, Greg Roman called for a Smith run off the left hand that caught Gregg Williams with his pants down and resulted in the longest playoff touchdown run by a quarterback in 49ers history.

We won't get into whether or not Smith should've gone down at the five-yard line (he should've) but suffice to say, the drama only got cranked up from there. Brees hit Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard pass where Donte Whitner egged on tackling and coverage and with 1:37 left in the game, it would've been a tough task for Montana to come back, much less Smith.

But he did just that, firing a laser to Davis that the tight end took 47 yards and inside of Akers range. Jim Harbaugh apparently wasn't satisfied with overtime and after getting to the New Orleans 14, Smith spiked the ball and then slung the dart to Davis for the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds remaining.

It was a glorious, unlikely ending to one of the all-time great playoff games; a showcase of defense throughout the first 55 minutes, followed by an out-of-nowhere offensive explosion that ranks up there with just about any game we've seen in terms of having multiple drives that looked like game-winners.

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Posted on: January 11, 2012 3:15 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2012 11:49 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Saints divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The league’s No. 2 scoring offense meets the No. 2 scoring defense at Candlestick on Saturday.

Neither side has faced this tall of an order this season. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Niners inside ‘backers on Saints stars
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason San Francisco had the league’s best all-around defense in 2011. Both are smart, supremely athletic and adept in traffic and space. Thus, both can play run or pass at the highest of levels, which is why neither comes off the field much.

All season long, defenses have tried to figure out not just how to stop Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, but how to simply line up against them. Do you use safeties on Graham and linebackers on Sproles? Vice Versa? Do you go with cornerbacks for both and risk getting run on?

The Niners might be the first team that doesn’t have to worry about personnel packages against these two, as they may put one First Team All-Pro linebacker on Graham and the other First Team All-Pro linebacker on Sproles. Whether the Niners can win those matchups is another discussion, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely fortunate to be able to even consider it.

Instead of having his players focus on new strategies, he can have them focus on execution.

2. Handling the rest of New Orleans’ passing attack
The 49ers generally play zone out of their base defense and man when they go nickel or dime. Because Graham is like a third wide receiver, the Saints can stay predominantly in their base personnel if they’re more comfortable facing zone coverage. That should be the case Saturday, as San Fran’s cornerbacking trio of Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver outside and Carlos Rogers inside has been tremendous in man-to-man.

Those three are capable of matching up with Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston – especially if safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are providing help as free roamers over the top.

Whitner is somewhat limited in coverage (his success tends to come when linebackers are blitzing, which defines the routes quickly and makes them easier to jump). Goldson, on the other hand, is very rangy.

Both players must be careful not to overreact to the subtle fakes and body language of Drew Brees. No quarterback manipulates deep safeties better than the new single season passing yards record holder.

Pressuring Brees is critical to stopping New Orleans. (Getty Images)

3. Pressuring Brees
San Francisco is willing to blitz but often doesn’t have to, thanks to the speed of edge-rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith works extremely well with All-Pro defensive end/tackle Justin Smith on the left side when it comes to twists and stunts. That’s something the Saints left offensive line has struggled with over the years.

This season, however, athletic left tackle Jermon Bushrod has finally polished his pass-blocking mechanics and perennial Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks has ironed out the kinks he had in lateral pass-blocking movement. Nicks is also great at picking up Bushrod’s slack as a help-blocker.

The real key will be whether the right side of the Saints’ line can keep Brees clean. This Saints started clicking after their loss to the Rams, when Sean Payton tweaked the protections to give his tackles help with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. That’s the only way the Saints could survive the slow feet of right tackle Zach Strief.

If Ahmad Brooks draws even one true solo matchup against Strief on third-and-long, it means something has gone terribly wrong. (Or, it means the Niners will have gambled with an overload pass-rush on that side, which is plausible given that Bowman and Willis are both excellent blitzers.)

4. Niners run game against Saints D
The Niners make no bones about it: they’re going to win with Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. They’re a power-run offense – literally. Most of their offense derives from power plays, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and fullback Bruce Miller or H-back Delanie Walker lead-blocking. The Saints have the personnel to stop this.

Former Niners tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a clogger inside and, when he shows up, veteran Shaun Rogers is a destroyer off the bench behind the generally incognito Sedrick Ellis. Also, defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan might not have dazzling sack numbers (Jordan, this year’s first round pick, recorded all of one), but both are superb at crashing inside or sliding down the line of scrimmage.

At the second level, Jonathan Vilma is regarded as the star (and rightfully so – he calls the signals and patrols sideline-to-sideline), but strong safety Roman Harper might be the deciding character on Saturday. Harper’s presence is what makes the Saints’ front seven so fast.

That will be especially important when backup running back Kendall Hunter, an underrated tempo-changer with better quickness and burst than Frank Gore, is in the game.

5. Niners big pass plays vs. Saints secondary
Jim Harbaugh is masterful at installing simple wrinkles in his offense each week that take advantage of the opponent’s greatest weakness. This week that means building a few downfield shot-plays into the passing game.

The Saints led the league in 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed during the regular season. The Niners know that if they keep extra blockers in for pass protection help (which their O-line needs, especially at tackle, where Joe Staley is very average on the left side and Anthony Davis, despite getting an embarrassingly nonsensical All-Pro vote, is very inconsistent on the right side), the Saints, with their green-dog heavy blitz packages, will bring the house:

In case you missed it, in last Saturday night’s broadcast, Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining a green dog blitz. A green-dog blitz is when a defender in man coverage rushes the quarterback after he sees that his man has stayed in to block. Thanks to the speed and aggression of their linebackers, the Saints green-dog blitz as effectively as any team in football.

Thus, there are one-on-one matchups to be had downfield. Though San Francisco’s offense has been Gingrich-level conservative this season, downfield shots off play-action, particularly when the ball’s just inside midfield, have actually been a consistent element in their gameplans.

The Niners have to intentionally design their big plays because, other than maybe tight end Vernon Davis, they don’t have anyone who can conjure them naturally.

Michael Crabtree has great body control but “inexplosive” speed. Kyle Williams is quick out of the slot but not over the top. Ted Ginn has playmaking POTENTIAL but isn’t consistent enough to be considered an actual PLAYMAKER.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 7, 2012 11:43 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 12:01 am
 

Harbaugh prepared for Saints, gets them next week

Dallas' last loss caused one fan to take up arms. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

We joked on Friday's playoff preview podcast that maybe Jim Harbaugh was trying to stick it to archnenemy Jim Schwartz one last time by suggesting last week that the 49ers would focus most of their bye-week preparation on facing the Saints in the NFC Divisional round, even though there was a chance they could face the Falcons or Giants.


Harbaugh and Schwartz had trouble executing the post-game handshake back in October, when the 49ers went into Detroit and beat the then-undefeated Lions. (Turns out, the feud may have been brewing for months.) And we're guessing Schwartz relished the thought of going to San Francisco and beating Harbaugh in the 49ers' first playoff game since 2002.

First he and the Lions would have to get past the Saints in the Superdome.  Things starting well enough, but Drew Brees did what Drew Brees does and the final score wasn't close. Whether Harbaugh's Jedi mind trick backfired or if he really did spend most of the week planning for the Saints, New Orleans will take the field in San Francisco next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET.

So do the 49ers have a chance? Absolutey.

No word yet on the Vegas line (we'll guess Saints -7) but slowing Brees (forget about stopping him) in 2011 has proven nearly impossible. He threw for 5,476 yards during the regular season, including seven consecutive games of more than 300 yards, including 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the 49ers aren't helpless; they have one of the league's most physical defenses (they were No. 3 overall, first against the run and eighth against the pass). San Francisco also has the advantage of playing at home, although Brees this season was just as effective outdoors as he was in a dome (69.6 percent vs. 72.1 percent; 95.7 passer rating vs. 118.7). As part of the preparation, Harbaugh might look at two games that show that the Saints are fallible.


Record-shattering Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints poured it on in the second half for a 45-28 NFC wild-card victory over the Detroit Lions on Saturday night. 

First: the Seahawks' wild-card win over the Saints during the 2010 playoffs. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in that game and the Saints didn't have an answer for him. They also scored 41 points. The 49ers don't have a workhorse like Lynch in their backfield, at least one who's healthy. (And they also don't score a ton of points.) Their running game ranks 24th, and Frank Gore, who has been banged up for most of the year, is near the bottom of the league among all running backs in terms of total value and value per play, according to Football Outsiders.

Second: during Week 2 of the 2010 season, the 49ers played the Saints tough in San Francisco, back when Mike Singletary was still patrolling the sidelines and Alex Smith was perpetually a play away from getting benched.

New Orleans won 25-22 on a last-second field goal. Gore rushed for 112 yards on 20 carries (5.6 yards per carry) in the game, and Smith threw for 275 yards, completing 23 of 32 passes. Brees, meanwhile, managed just 254 yards in the air. (In the 30 regular-season games since, Brees has thrown for fewer yards once.)

But 20 months later and both teams are different. The Saints' offense is as finely tuned as any offense ever, and the 49ers have gone from eight years of losing to winning 13 games, the NFC West and the No. 2 seed in the conference. Harbaugh, who should be the unanimous choice for coach of the year, has his toughest job in front of him: convincing his team that they can hang with New Orleans.

It's not impossible -- San Francisco had their chance last year, Seattle capitalized on their opportunity, and the hapless Rams pulled if off this season -- just improbable.

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Posted on: January 5, 2012 1:14 pm
Edited on: January 5, 2012 6:00 pm
 

Chargers fire defensive coordinator Greg Manusky

Greg Manusky was fired by Norv Turner (US Presswire).By Josh Katzowitz

UPDATE: 5:58 p.m. ET - Several outlets are reporting that longtime Chargers defensive assistant John Pagano has been hired as the team's new defensive coordinator.

The Chargers will look for their second defensive coordinator since Jan. 2011. That’s because, as the San Diego Union Tribune reports, San Diego has fired Greg Manusky.

“I’d like to thank Greg for the passion and enthusiasm he brought to our team and coaching staff this past season,” Turner in a statement released by the team.

Only a season ago, after Ron Rivera left for the Panthers head coaching job (a job in which Manusky actually was one of four finalists), the Chargers hired Manusky to replace him. Before that, Manusky had been the 49ers defensive coordinator, but when Jim Harbaugh was hired, he made it clear Manusky wouldn’t stay in San Francisco.

When it became clear that Norv Turner and San Diego general manager A.J. Smith would be retained by owner Dean Spanos, some kind of change still needed to be made. Manusky -- whose unit finished 16th in the league  in yards allowed -- just became that fall guy.

Of course, this move IS rather interesting, considering this is what Turner said about Manusky THREE days ago.

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"I would not characterize the hiring of Greg Manusky as a mistake," Turner said, via the North County Times. "He has done a good job for us. Losing so many guys and playing so many young players is difficult.

"Defensively, it's all about having impact players. If you don't have players that can [beat] a guy one-on-one and make a big play, you're not going to get the number of stops you need to get. It's been a hard year for all of us and a tough year for Greg, but I thought he did a good job."

So, if it’s not Manusky’s fault, as Turner flat-out says, but instead, the fault of whomever is in charge of player personnel, it sounds like Manusky got a raw deal. Especially since the general manager in charge of player personnel still has a job.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com