Giving champs a scare should lead 49ers to bigger things

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- It's impossible to know whether the Saints took the 49ers too lightly, but Monday night was a perfect illustration that defending champions always get everyone's best game the following year and the Saints will have the bull's eye on their chests all season long.

Mike Singletary's team takes a big leap forward, and should be celebrating real victories soon. (Getty Images)  
Mike Singletary's team takes a big leap forward, and should be celebrating real victories soon. (Getty Images)  
The New Orleans defense was, to be frank, terrible. San Francisco has some talented players in running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, but you can't give up 417 yards of offense to a team with two backups starting along the offensive line and another two spots being manned by rookies. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tried different blitzes and stunts, including one delayed corner blitz that resulted in a fortuitous interception in the first quarter, but for the most part, you got the feeling he left his best stuff in his back pocket, ready to use against a more formidable opponent.

The defensive line was manhandled all night in the running game and Gore could've really put up some eye-catching numbers if the Niners ever got to play with the lead. Fortunately for the Saints, they never did.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma does deserve credit for noticing that 49ers tight end Delanie Walker was carrying the ball too loosely on a completion with a minute to go in the second quarter. He punched the ball out, which snuffed a potential go-ahead drive for San Francisco. Fellow linebacker Jo-Lunn Dunbar was responsible for the only 49ers turnover that wasn't self-inflicted, as he made a legitimately good play in deflecting a slant pass in the fourth quarter to Crabtree, which corner Tracy Porter intercepted.

Offensively, the Saints got nothing going in the run game -- which was to be expected -- but had surprising difficulty containing a simple four-man pass rush. The 49ers consistently dropped seven in coverage, forcing Drew Brees to look for his tight ends and backs, which he did for 20 of his 28 completions. Even though Brees didn't look all that impressive, he finished 28 of 38 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and -- most important -- no turnovers.

The real downer for the Saints, besides the performance of their defense, was that the team might have lost running back Reggie Bush to a significant ankle injury. He was helped to the sidelines with the assistance of trainers and carted off the field.

From a 49ers perspective, it will be tough to look at this game as a moral victory because they'll keep coming back to the four turnovers, over and over again, especially when three of them were very preventable. An accurate pass by Smith to Gore or one simply thrown out of bounds would've prevented the first interception, Walker should've secured the ball much better on his fumble (it's not like Vilma hit him hard, he simply executed a terrific punch), and rookie corner Phillip Adams shouldn't have been anywhere near the ball on a punt headed for the sidelines, especially considering he almost had a similar gaffe in the first quarter, where only a replay challenge saved him.

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It's hard to be too upset with Adams considering he's the third-string punt returner and he was forced into that role due to injuries to receivers Ted Ginn (knee) and Kyle Williams (toe). He did have some experience returning punts at South Carolina State, but he wasn't their main guy there.

The game was a coming-out party for rookie linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, the team's behemoth first-round picks from Rutgers and Idaho respectively, who were both sensational all night and never allowed Smith to be sacked despite facing a complex blitzing New Orleans defense. They also opened a staggering amount of holes for Gore, considering how many men the Saints were committing to the run. It's not like the Niners were going with four receivers and spreading the defense out. For the most part, they lined up with a fullback or two tight ends (or both) and made their intentions quite clear: "This is what we do, stop it." A huge chunk of credit also goes to Gore, who was patient in waiting for his blocks to develop and brilliant with his cutbacks.

Defensively, they were anything but complex, as most preseason game plans around the league were spicier than what defense Greg Manusky trotted out on Monday, but the genius of it was in its simplicity. You can't fool Brees, so why even try? Just rush four, drop everyone back, eliminate the big play and make the running backs and tight ends break tackles over and over again to move the chains. They held New Orleans to 287 yards and forced six punts, which is a massive accomplishment. They just couldn't come up with any turnovers.

This game clearly establishes the 49ers as NFC West favorites, despite their 0-2 record. The question is: Will they build on the positives of this game or become one of "those teams" that always finds a way to lose?

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