Defense has been the backbone of the dramatic turnaround the 49ers have made this season, so it only seems fitting it played a huge role in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game.
The game will be remembered for Alex Smith’s fourth-quarter heroics, but none of that would have been possible without the ball-hawking defense.
San Francisco gave up 472 yards, but forced five pivotal turnovers, including three in the first quarter alone.
“I haven’t seen a game in like that in all the years I’ve played,” 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “Two good teams, two good offenses, two good defenses and we came out on top.”
The Niners set the tone early when safety Donte Whitner delivered a crushing hit on Saints running back Pierre Thomas on the first drive of the game inside the 49ers 10-yard line.
Thomas fumbled and had to leave the game with a head injury.
More importantly, the Saints were kept off the scoreboard and it sent a jolt into the crowd and the 49ers’ sideline.
“[Donte] was unbelievable from beginning to end,” Rogers said. “He was making big hits and big tackles. We missed some tackles, but we did what we had to do to win.”
The Niners stuffed any chance of a Saints running game, holding New Orleans to just 37 yards rushing. It forced the Saints, who were the No. 6 rushing team in the NFL in the regular season, to become one dimensional.
The stat line for Drew Brees was off the charts at 462 yards passing and four touchdowns, but he was sacked three times and had to throw 63 times to accumulate those yards. And Brees often had to hold the ball for a long time thanks to blanket coverage by the Niners’ secondary.
“It was a really good defense and they did a really job trying to keep the ball in front of them,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We had to be patient at times with the underneath throws.”