Harbaugh's Niners ready for blitz-happy Saints

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Joe Staley remembers the onslaught of black jerseys, the lamentable lack of schematic answers and the celebratory yelps of converging defenders who seemed a bit too fired up for the occasion.

Most of all, the San Francisco 49ers' Pro Bowl left tackle recalls the helplessness that he and his fellow offensive linemen experienced as quarterback Alex Smith took shot after shot from New Orleans Saints defenders.

"It was miserable," Staley said Thursday, looking back upon the Niners' shaky preseason opener against the Saints last August. "It was upsetting, just to know how hard [Smith] was getting hit. Some of those hits were brutal. And when you think back to it now, it kind of burns a little fire in the offensive line."

While Staley and his 49ers teammates have done their best not to fan the flames before Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Saints at Candlestick Park, coach Jim Harbaugh and his assistants have given them some not-so-subtle reminders about that 24-3 thrashing San Francisco absorbed in the Superdome.

If nothing else, the video footage from that game shown to Niners players this week serves as a reminder that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tends to dial up blitzes as cavalierly as beads fly off Bourbon Street balconies at Mardi Gras. If the Niners can't pick up the extra pass rushers and protect Smith, they'll have a hard time matching points with red-hot quarterback Drew Brees and the prolific New Orleans attack.

[Related: The MVP case for Drew Brees]

Then again, the 49ers are infinitely more prepared for the task, having acclimated themselves to an offensive system that was brand new to them when they made that trip to the Crescent City. Two weeks after the lockout ended and training camp began, even veterans like Staley were struggling to grasp the intricacies of their rookie coach's offense, whereas most of the Saints' defenders were well-versed in Williams' pressure-happy ways.

"We were just getting adjusted, getting familiar with the offense," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We didn't really know much, especially me. I was learning how to read the offense. Before [Harbaugh], I just had to know if the middle of the field was open or not. Now, I had to read everything.

"Yeah, it was [a lousy feeling], when they first threw it all at us. They seemed to be excited."

In the aftermath of that fiasco, in which the Saints had five first-half sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, the 49ers appeared to be in panic mode. Two days later, they worked out former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. The team didn't sign the three-time Pro Bowl selection, but gave a roster spot to veteran quarterback Josh McCown two days later.

Yet no drastic changes ever took place, and as the Niners became comfortable with their new coach and his system, they quickly jelled into one of the league's pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. In fact, the even-keeled behavior of Harbaugh and his assistants – especially juxtaposed against that of volatile predecessors Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan – helped create the mentality that allowed San Francisco to go 13-3 and secure a first-round playoff bye.

A prime example occurred four weeks into the season, when the Niners fell behind by 17 points at halftime of a road game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"The week before, we had come back and beat Cincinnati, but we just weren't clicking in the first half [in Philly]," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman recalled. "I vividly remember coming down the [press-box] elevator just feeling like it was a flashpoint for us, that we'd end up steering in one direction or the other."

As he reached the locker room, Roman told his players to "look into my eyes" and to focus on each play without worrying about the score. Then Harbaugh addressed the team, and those players who'd been around for Singletary's famous pants-dropping episode braced themselves for a possible tirade.

"We came in at halftime down and hadn't played well, and I thought the coaches might yell at us," Staley said. "There was no finger-pointing, and they stayed totally calm. Nobody dropped trou. Harbaugh told us, 'Execute one percent better, every single person, to a man, and we'll be fine.' Then the coordinators made adjustments, and we went back out.

"It was a calming effect. In the past, there's been a lot of screaming and yelling. I always look to that game as a big turning point in the season."

After the Eagles increased their lead to 20 midway through the third quarter, the 49ers rallied for a 24-23 victory. They got increasingly impressive as the season progressed. If the Saints think they're getting the same shellshocked opponent on Saturday that they encountered back in the summer, they're probably not paying attention.

[Smarter Stats: New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers]

"The 49ers will be ready," halfback Frank Gore said Thursday. "You turn on the film and watch us, and people know what time it is. I don't care what they say Drew Brees can do, cause we've got a complete football team – offense, defense and special teams. I know what we've got in this locker room."

Said Roman: "I don't think people know until they play us, and then afterwards they say, 'Wow.' "

Stronger exclamations were undoubtedly being uttered by Roman and his fellow coaches back in that August preseason meeting, as Williams sent blitz after blitz (18, by one count, in the first half alone) at an unprepared offense. One theory which later emerged was that Saints coach Sean Payton had advocated the aggressive approach because he was miffed that Harbaugh, a rookie coach, hadn't called him to discuss a "gentleman's agreement" about how hard the two teams would play.

Earlier this week, Harbaugh told reporters that he knew of no such protocol and, even if he had, wouldn't have agreed to such an arrangement.

If the 49ers are holding any grudges, they're doing a good job of trying to conceal their motivational strategy.

"We've shown parts of it [on film]," Roman said, "but we're so emotionally disconnected from it. It's such a faded memory. I think we're onto bigger and better things."

Staley agreed, saying, "We've been through some stuff this season. We've won tough games on the road. We've come back from some deficits. Different people have stepped up at different times. We're a very resilient team, and a much more confident team, than we were back then."

Not only are the 49ers confident that they can hold up against the blitz, they may actually be welcoming the mismatches such tactics create. If Williams is as aggressive as he usually is, the Niners will have opportunities to gash the Saints for big plays, something they weren't yet capable of doing in August.

[

*
Related: 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith talks to Yahoo! Sports Radio]

"There's 11 guys on defense, and you can do whatever you want with those 11," Roman said. "Quite frankly, when they came at us, huge opportunities were there that we didn't capitalize on."

This time around, it seems, the Niners would love to lay it on the line.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

I realize this goes against every ounce of rational thought in my being, but … the Broncos – led by Willis McGahee and a revved-up defense, and guided by the mellifluous left arm of You Know Who – will stun Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough on Saturday night. … The Niners will slow down the Saints' potent offense and grind their way to an upset victory at Candlestick Park on Saturday afternoon. … Ray Lewis – written off by some as too old to play at a high level – will do something emphatic Sunday afternoon in Baltimore as the Ravens' defense shuts down the Texans in a convincing victory.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Titletown, where I hope I'll see a Packers-Giants game as competitive as the one I witnessed at Lambeau Field nearly four years ago – but not quite as diabolically cold. What can I say? I'm a Californian. Then again, so is the guy who owns that stadium.

[

video
NFL playoffs video: Giants try to run past Packers]

LIES, LIES, LIES

View gallery

.
Shahid Kahn

1) After putting his foot in his mouth at the news conference announcing the hiring of coach Mike Mularkey by defining a fan as "a season ticket holder for the Jaguars," Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan tried to remove it – and got his toes caught in his mustache.

2) Upon winning his appeal of a $10,000 fine for using his cell phone on the sideline of an Oct. 16 game, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu excitedly texted the news to former Saints wideout Joe Horn, who replied "smh."

3) Inspired by Harbaugh's "we ask no quarter, we get no quarter" statement to reporters earlier this week, surviving Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones announced they would reunite and play a free concert at Golden Gate Park should the 49ers win their sixth Super Bowl.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, one year after surviving an American tragedy.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Last spring, the Bears' men's and women's basketball teams had to settle for NIT berths, something that I predict won't be a problem this season. Each Cal team ended up playing second-round games at Colorado – and losing. So it was nice to see the Buffaloes, now full-fledged Pac-12 members, go down in tandem on Thursday night. First Lindsay Gottlieb of fantasy annoyance fame earned her first Pac-12 road victory as the Golden Bears mounted a comeback in Boulder that would have made Tim Tebow proud. Cal (12-5, 3-2) fought back from a 12-point deficit with 12 minutes to play and stormed to a 68-55 victory, finishing the game with a 17-0 run. Junior guard Layshia Clarendon had 12 of her 18 points in the second half and, said Gottlieb, "stepped up like a superstar." Enough said.

Meanwhile, at Haas Pavilion, Mike Montgomery's men earned a 57-50 victory over the Buffs as senior forward Harper Kamp (14 points, eight rebounds) led the way. The Bears (14-4, 4-1) moved into a tie for the Pac-12 lead and ended Colorado's six-game winning streak. Also, rugby season starts this weekend. Take cover: Jack Clark is coming for you.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

deadspin espn tebow

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

View gallery

.
Hue Jackson was let go after just one season as head coach.
(Getty Images)

First, in the wake of coach Hue Jackson's firing, I compared Raiders owner Mark Davis to Tommy Boy. Now, I compare him to Andre 3000, the Outkast who teams with Big Boi to create one of the great hip-hop entities of all time. With Davis doing 'Dre and newly hired general manager Reggie McKenzie, naturally, handling Big Boi's responsibilities, this should explain the events of recent days. To the tune of "Ms. Jackson."

[Mark Davis]
Yeah this one right here goes out to all the Raiders coaches, coaches …
Coaches, coaches, buenos noches, coaches
Yeah, go like this

I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Never liked you since my father died
I wanted to hire my own guy
I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Never liked you since my father died
I wanted to hire my own guy

[Reggie McKenzie]
I been through Brett Favre drama, in Green Bay
He'd be doing things like showing up at Lambeau for a scrimmage with Deanna watching Rodgers play
McCarthy told him, "Brett you are no longer the guy, now get the hell out"
That's Ted's house – he overhauled the roster but didn't sell out
Now I'm in Oaktown so get ready, cause I'm the GM
Al is gone, Amy's here, we all know I'm "The BM"
I love your plays and formations, but see yours is the team that laid down
You wanna rip your guys cause you can't take anymore, then throw the mic down
And then you went Al Haig
You said, "I am gonna take charge" – you got excited
Gave up a first and second
For Carson Palmer – you were delighted
Despite it, we still got our asses kicked by Fox and Tebow
Fool's gold, though we share the same agent you got to go, yeah

I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Gonna give some boring coach a try
Now it's time for you to say goodbye
You're fired Hue Jackson
That is the deal
Gonna give some boring coach a try
Now it's time for you to say goodbye

[Mark Davis]
Me and my father … had a special thang goin on
You thought he dogged me out (arf arf arf)
Now I am King Kong (ARF ARF WOOF!)
People thought Al would … run this team forever
You can draw a pretty game plan
but you can't predict the weather, Hue Jackson

Now this team is mine, you think I'm lyin'? Fine
You should be muzzled 'cause you're smarter and you're on the grind
With Reggie, I foresee dynasty, together dream
bout that ring Winston Moss will bring
back to Oaktown, it goes down – can't wait 'till September
Remember to rev the blender, another bender?
Bartender where's the mirror? Oh my, my hair has grown
And Edward Scissorhands is my barber, please keep it long
Hue Jackson my dad thought you were good, I wish I could
enter a time machine and hire John Madden like Aladdin
A genie, it would be, a party
And Marinovich back there brewin' his herbal tea
Dad, I didn't like the way you treated me, bad
Now those days are over and I'm a be, rad
So know this, know that I filled your role
And yes I will be present to wave to the Black Hole
And at draft meetings

I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Never liked you since my father died
I wanted to hire my own guy
I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Never liked you since my father died
I wanted to hire my own guy

[Reggie McKenzie]
Uh, uh, yeah
"Look at the way Mark did me"
Shoot, this decision was Reggie's
You see your big-mouth comments to the press
done got your butt sent back to Cincy
Without employment, and no enjoyment
I had to kick you out
Now you ain't buildin' a bully no more
cause I'm what it's all about
You know what I'm talking about Carson P., T.J. Houshmand-Z, DMC
Kiffin to Cable, 8 and 8 record you got the same thing
So who you placin' the blame on, you keep on singin the same song
Let bygones be bygones, you can go on and get the hell on
You and your bully

I'm sorry Hue Jackson [OOOH]
I am for real
Gonna give some boring coach a try
Now it's time for you to say goodbye
You're fired Hue Jackson
That is the deal
Gonna give some boring coach a try
Now it's time for you to say goodbye …

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Spears: Dwight Howard shoots NBA-record 39 free throws
ThePostGame: Tim Tebow's success inspires wacky wager
Deadline looming for underclassmen to declare for NFL draft
Shine: Giant team logos among outrageous tattoos