A few personnel thoughts from the New Orleans Saints' commanding 24-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers at the Superdome on Friday, August 12.
San Francisco 49ers
Smith still isn't ready
When watching 49ers quarterback Alex Smith through his career, my frustration has been that he seems to be the type of player who needs everything lined up right to succeed. That's not how things go for quarterbacks in his pass-first, blitz-happy era, and Smith really struggled against New Orleans' aggressive defense. It didn't help that his line was terrible (more on that later), but at this point, you want to see more from a guy who's been in the NFL since 2005. He still struggles with easy things, such as getting the ball in a quick window underneath to a tight end in a clearing concept like trips or bunch.
Smith's first pressure, which came with just 45 seconds gone in the new preseason, came off a shotgun snap he couldn't handle. Smith didn't see the rush from right end Will Smith, who beat left tackle Joe Staley inside. That is on Staley, but Smith still looks shell-shocked and slow when things aren't aligned for him. He's had a rough go since being drafted first overall in 2005 — several different offensive coordinators and offenses that didn't fit his abilities. But he'll need to show more growth than he did against the Saints if he wants to be part of the team's future.
Whose line is it, anyway?
Staley's blown inside block was just the first of many problems for San Francisco's young offensive line in this game. Early in the 49ers' second possession, Harper came free and unchecked off the defensive right side and cleaned Smith's clock with a quarterback hit. As Smith doesn't possess an elite sense of blindside pressure (to put it kindly), that's a problem. Staley and tight end Vernon Davis pushed inside as Davis handed linebacker Will Herring off to Staley, and nobody seemed to check the call to adjust for Harper. Harper lined up close on the second play of the 49ers' third series and crashed in off the defensive left side — again, completely unchecked as the two tight ends on the right side released into their routes. An overwhelmed Smith let a pass fly in the direction of … well, nobody.
San Francisco's line was better at run-blocking, because the young linemen could use their athleticism downfield, and a good run-blocking concept is always a way to beat blitzes. But the pass-blocking is a real problem for this team — in theory and in execution. The "it's just the preseason" arguments don't really fly, either; per Football Outsiders' 2010 offensive line stats, this same line was solid in the run game and terrible in pass pro last season, as well.
New Orleans Saints
Stealing Franklin from 49ers a very wise move
The Saints didn't just beat up the 49ers' offense and steal Alex Smith's lunch money; they also took San Francisco's best interior lineman against the run when they signed free-agent defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin to a one-year contract. Though Justin Smith gets most of whatever attention is afforded to San Francisco's defensive line because he puts up the hits and hurries, Franklin's the one who made it all go with his ability to get low and nasty at nose tackle and soak up blockers. The Saints had already added first-round pick Cameron Jordan and veteran Shaun Rogers to their line; getting Franklin should be the glue, and you saw that right away against the 49ers.
While Rogers will fill the one-gap nose at times (and I like him better as a two-gap tackle, lined up right on the center's head), Franklin plays any role better than most. He is amazingly quick to set up and get under pads off the snap, and he's absolutely relentless once he gets going. Most often, he won't get a combo-chip from two blockers — he'll command a legitimate double-team through the play, and that's the ultimate sign of respect for a defensive tackle. Occasionallly, in Gregg Williams' mobile and multiple fronts, you'll see Franklin kick over to a head-on three-tech position over a guard, and that guard had better be ready for a fight. Most likely, he's about to get dominated by one of the strongest and most underrated tackles in the game today. Franklin was an amazing get for the Saints.
New RB rotation looks very deep
There's no doubt that the Saints' offense will continue to be dominated by Drew Brees' ability to shred defenses, but you also have to like what you see in first-round pick Mark Ingram. I compared the Alabama running back to Tiki Barber after watching his college tape, because he's one of the rare every-down backs in the league — he can do it all. He's quick enough up to speed to run the stretch play the Saints love so well, and he has enough acceleration to blow through gaps and pinwheel past defenders as he did in his touchdown run (by the way — nice fake-pass to handoff set up by backup quarterback Chase Daniel).
New scatback Darren Sproles won't dominate the seam like Reggie Bush did — he's more a player to run to the flat and provide more escape hatches for his quarterback. This may allow Sean Payton to put his athletic tight ends, especially Jimmy Graham, in those seam roles. And one of my favorite underappreciated players, running back Pierre Thomas is the man in the middle, using his cutback ability and aggressive speed to make tracks when he's in there. With one draft pick and one acquisition, the Saints have made their running back crew as deep as it's been in the Payton era.
People won't stop talking about the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC, but when you take a good look at what the Saints have done to rebuild this offseason, it's clear that they must be taken very seriously as a Super Bowl contender. As for the 49ers? It might be back to the old drawing board sooner than later.