METAIRIE, La. — One of the lasting images from New Orleans’ playoff loss in San Francisco during the divisional round of the playoffs for the 2011 season, is Saints running back Pierre Thomas getting knocked out by 49ers safety Donte Whitner.
A year later, the image was of Saints receiver Marques Colston being undercut by San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson, the New Orleans player staying down after coming down on his head.
The 49ers are physical and unapologetic about it.
Sunday, when the Saints (7-2) host the 49ers (6-3) in a key NFC showdown at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans will have to figure out a way to deal with San Francisco’s physical style.
Or is it the other way around?
Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints’ veteran safety, certainly thinks New Orleans doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being a marauding, hard-hitting team.
“That’s how everybody approaches us,” Jenkins said. “Do y’all think y’all have to match their physicality or are y’all just going to be who you are? Well, who do you think we are? We think we’re a physical team. Obviously we score points and do whatever, but you turn on the tape, I think you see us pound the ball like we did last week. I think you see us hit on defense. I think our front four is violent in the run game.”
Rankings certainly don’t equal a physical style of play – New Orleans, after all, is 32nd in rushing yards allowed per play and 18th in yards per play overall.
But some other ones show just how good the Saints defense is this season regardless of how physical they may or may not appear to be. They’re third on third downs, allowing a meager 31.78 percent to be converted. And they’re third in sacks per pass attempt, getting to the quarterback 10 percent of the time.
“I don’t think, especially defensively, I don’t think there’s anything finesse about us,” Jenkins said. “I think we get after quarterbacks. I think we hit in the run game. I think our secondary plays physical – we press, get after the receivers on the line of scrimmage.”
Still, Jenkins isn’t playing the 49ers defense; the defense he’s a part of will be tasked with stopping San Francisco’s offense.
From the perspective of New Orleans’ skill position players, there’s a very real understanding of how San Francisco plays on defense. That won’t change how the Saints offense will play and what’s called, however.
“You’re definitely more aware of where certain people are on the field but you can’t let that take over your game,” New Orleans receiver Lance Moore said. “You can’t be thinking, oh my gosh, if I catch this ball, so and so is going to hit me. That’s part of the game. We’ve got to do what it takes to continue to make plays.”
San Francisco’s defense is as tough as it has been since Jim Harbaugh took over as coach. They’ve taken the ball away 18 times this season, rank sixth in passing yards per play and 10th in rushing yards per play. More to the point, they’re as stingy as ever in allowing teams to score, giving up just 17.2 points per game.
“The (last) two times we played them, it’s been a tough matchup,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “I think the biggest areas, things that they kind of pride themselves on, is stopping the run and being physical (and) getting the ball out. They’re still tops in the league in turnovers. You’ve got a lot of ballhawks on that team.”
Added running back Mark Ingram, “You’ve got to be able to pick up the blitz. All the different looks they give, all the different weapons they have on defense, when they bring pressure you want to make sure you have it pick up so Drew has time. The offensive line and the running backs – we all have to be on the same page. We have to communicate what the protection is and everybody has to know exactly who they have.”