As part of our coverage of the upcoming divisional playoff game between the 49ers and Saints, The Press Democrat posed questions to Mike Triplett of The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Here are five questions and answers about the Saints plus a bonus question.
PRESS DEMOCRAT: The Saints beat the Niners at Candlestick 25-22 in September, 2010. Are the Saints a better team now? How much better do Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham make them?
TRIPLETT: The Saints have mostly the same players, coaches and philosophy. But clearly they're playing much better right now. They're absolutely locked in on offense, playing as well as they have during any stretch in the Brees-Payton era — and that's saying something.
NFL Cheerleaders, Week 18
It's not just Brees, either, but the terrific offensive line and underrated run game as well. And, yes, Sproles and Graham have emerged as two of their three most dynamic playmakers, along with receiver Marques Colston. They are definitely upgrades over Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey, whom the Saints had in 2010. This team is really, really hard to defend because it's so deep and versatile.
The Saints were far from locked in on that night at S.F. Brees threw for only 254, and the Saints ran for only 50 yards. I expect them to be much more in sync this time around, but I do think the combination of that swirling wind and that outstanding 49ers defense will cause them more problems than anything they faced all year.
As for the Saints' defense, it's about the same as it was in Week 2 last year and every week since. They have a lot of experienced, battle-tested players. They play very well over long stretches and force a lot of punts and field goals. But they also give up a handful of big plays every week without forcing enough turnovers. They let the 49ers hang around in that game last year even when Alex Smith wasn't playing with the confidence he is now. They need to be better this time around."
PD: In the 2011 regular season the Saints scored touchdowns in 69.4 percent of red zone trips, but only 31.8 percent of the time on grass. Why such a large disparity between indoor and outdoor offensive efficiency for the Saints? Will this be an issue at Candlestick?
TRIPLETT: The Saints are definitely best suited for playing in domes, with the fast track and controlled weather conditions. And like I said, the wind at Candlestick can mess with some of those deep balls they like to throw. But some of those stats came from earlier in the year when they were a little more inconsistent. The way they've been playing over the last two months, I fully expect their offense to make the trip with them out west. I think the 49ers will have to find a way to score at least 25-plus to win this game.
PD: Where are the Saints vulnerable to what the Niners do?
TRIPLETT: That turnover ratio obviously sticks out like a sore thumb (plus-28 for the 49ers, minus-3 for the Saints). If those trends continue, with the 49ers able to chew some clock and manage the field possession, maybe steal a short touchdown drive, that's certainly a formula for nullifying the Saints' offense. I also think the 49ers' defense will be the best the Saints have faced all year. Not only can they bring pressure without needing to blitz, but they also have some talented athletes who can match up with the likes of Graham, Colston and Sproles.