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Shutdown Corner

49ers end first two Saints drives with physical play, great pass defense

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Drew Brees is getting an education from Vic Fangio University. (Getty Images)

We have to hope the New Orleans Saints brought their hardhats to wear OVER their helmets at Candlestick Park in the opening game of the divisional round. Because if the first drive was any indication, these 49ers are playing all-out in a physical style, and penalties be damned.

Two plays stood out in New Orleans' first drive — first, a pass attempt from Drew Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham on a third-and-5 from the San Francisco 44-yard-line. Brees tried to hit Graham on a right sideline route 23 yards downfield, but safety Donte Whitner had him in close coverage and batted the ball away. The official nearest to Whitner and Graham, but facing away from Graham and looking at his back, threw a pass interference flag despite the fact that there appeared to be minimal contact at best. This seemed to be a "no-look" flag, thrown when a defender doesn't look back to play the ball and instead keeps his eyes on the receiver. Defenders rarely get the benefit of the doubt on such plays.

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That put the ball at the 49ers' 21-yard line. Six plays later, on a third-and-6 at the San Francisco 7-yard line, running back Pierre Thomas was absolutely knocked the [BLEEP] out by Whitner, who hit him helmet-to-helmet. Thomas fumbled the ball (probably because it's tough to hang on to an oblong leather thing when your lights are out. You can see the hit here, and we'll have the video up on the site as soon as possible. Linebacker Patrick Willis recovered the fumble at the San Francisco 2-yard line. Thomas was ablke to get to his feet, but he headed to the locker room, and he's most likely done for the game.

Of course, you're asking the same question we are: Where was the flag? With all the picayune helmet contact calls we have seen through the 2011 regular season and into the playoffs, why is it so often the obvious play that escapes the notice of the officiating crew?

[Related: Playoff appearance triggers $1M bonus for Alex Smith]

Noted officiating mouthpiece Mike Pereira said that Thomas wasn't a defenseless runner, therefore no helmet-to-helmet call, but as usual, I think Pereira's full of it. I've seen numerous calls on plays very much like that — where non-quarterbacks are several steps down the field when the contact happens. A little consistency would be nice, and if the refs aren't supposed to make that call, they certainly do so often enough anyway.

Well, it'll give us something to talk about later this week when "Adventures in Officiating" comes up.

The 49ers led the NFL with a +28 turnover margin in 2011, and that's a classic example of why — this team plays smashmouth no matter what the rules may say. They are defiantly old-school, and that's the way they like it. On the Saints' second drive. safety Dashon Goldson picked Brees off by jumping a route perfectly  on a pass that was intended for Robert Meacham, and ran the ball back to the New Orleans 4-yard line. You can see that one here.

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