If the New Orleans Saints had a theme for Sunday’s game with the San Francisco 49ers, a rematch of their wild shootout in the divisional playoffs last January, it would be “less is more.”
As in less throwing and more running, which, at first glance, would seem to run counter to the Saints’ record-shattering passing game.
By the time they meet again at 3:25 p.m. Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints (5-5) will likely be tired of hearing the number 63 — the number of passes Drew Brees let fly in a 36-32 season-ending loss to the 49ers (7-2-1) in Candlestick Park on Jan. 14.
For years, the Saints have known that their chances for success are reduced dramatically when they put the ball in the air at least 40 times.
In fact, they’re 19-27 in the regular season when throwing it 40 or more times since Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006. On the other hand, they’re 48-12 when they throw fewer than 40 passes.
So dropping back too often certainly isn’t a recipe for success against an aggressive 49ers defense that ranks second in the NFL in total yards allowed and passing yards through 10 games.
“Throwing it 60 times against these guys is not the ideal scenario,” Brees said this week when reminded of that playoff loss. “I think we’re quite a different team now than we were then.”
Indeed. Even though the Saints ranked sixth in the league in rushing with 132.9 yards per game last season, they were playing without an injured Mark Ingram and then lost Pierre Thomas to a concussion on the opening possession.
For all intents and purposes, the game plan went out the window when the 49ers piled up a 17-0 lead in the first minute of the second period even though the Saints came back with a 24-6 run to take the lead late before falling.
The Saints rushed for 37 yards and a 2.6 average on 14 carries with a long gain of 7 yards. In addition to the 63 passes, Brees was sacked three times and intercepted twice even though he threw for 462 yards and four TDs.
But a recent stretch in which they’ve won three games in a row and five of their past six, Brees said, has the Saints on the right track even though they only rank 26th in rushing with 94.9 yards a game.
“We’ve averaged throwing it maybe less than 30 times a game (actually 29), which is quite a bit different from what we did there last year and what we were doing going into that game last year,” Brees said.
As a result, they know they’ll have to run the ball against the 49ers to keep the pass rush honest, a task that includes keeping outside linebacker Aldon Smith on his heels.
Smith, the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week, had 51/2 sacks in last Monday night’s 32-7 blowout of the Chicago Bears and now has a league-high 15 for the season.
Last season, Smith recorded 14 sacks, while defensive tackle Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks added 71/2 and seven, respectively.
“What’s going to be successful against these guys is sustaining drives ... staying on the field and keeping their offense off the field,” Brees said. “We want to try to take advantage of every opportunity we get to control the ball, to run the ball, to make plays in the passing game, and to score points when we can.
“Really, execution becomes so vital in a game like this.”
That’s where the Saints running game comes in.
Last in the league as recently as Nov. 5 when they were averaging 72.6 yards per game, the Saints responded with 140, 148 and 153 yards in their past three games — all wins.
Ingram has rushed for 67 yards in back-to-back games and Chris Ivory has been running angry in averaging 6.3 yards per attempt after getting no touches in the first seven games.
In their past three games, the Saints have thrown the ball 87 times and run it 82 times.
They achieved the ultimate balancing act in last Sunday’s 38-17 rout of the Oakland Raiders with 28 passes and 28 runs.
Nineteen of last week’s runs came on first down and produced 122 yards, which they would gladly take against the 49ers’ sixth-ranked run defense.
“That (balance) has been a big part of it the last three weeks,” said Ivory, who has rushed for 157 yards and two TDs. “Any time you have balance, you’re going to be good.
“Right now, we’ve got a good balance with the run and pass. The guys are doing a good job up front, and that’s letting us do our job.”
Running the football effectively, which would minimize the chances of being hurried and tracked down by the Smiths, is key as far as Brees is concerned.
“It’s pretty impressive what they’re able to do as a tandem,” he said. “You always just have to be conscious that you can’t be sitting back there holding the ball.
“That’s what they thrive on. That’s the way they’re built. We certainly don’t want that. We want to be as efficient as possible and put ourselves into manageable positions and positions to succeed.”