Drew Brees on Alex Smith: “He looks like he’s playing with a lot of confidence, and yet taking care of the football and being a great game manager.”

Drew Brees spoke to Bay Area writers on a conference call this afternoon. Here’s what he said.

Q: What makes the 49ers so difficult to play against?

BREES: “First of all it’s a 3-4 system, which we don’t see all that often. It’s been a little while since we’ve played a 3-4 team. They’re built differently. They’re typically a lot bigger, more physical – definitely what you see from San Francisco’s front seven. They’re a big, tough, strong, physical group that you look at statistically and you say ‘Alright, they’re No. 1 against the run, they’re putting all kinds of pressure on the quarterback – they’re ranked in the top ten in sacks, obviously creating turnovers and that kind of thing, they rarely miss tackles – I mean, they’re a great tackling team.’

“And then you turn on the tape and you look at these guys and you just say, ‘They’re a very disciplined, they’re constantly stuffing the run holes, allowing their linebackers to run around and make tackles.’ It’s just a really solid, disciplined group that is probably, in my opinion, one of the best front-sevens in this league.”

Q: In the last game you lost you got sacked six or seven times. In the last nine games you’ve only gotten sacked seven times. What happened in that game and why did it change the last nine games?

BREES: “I think we got away from some of our protection schemes that allow us to be good. That was a time in the season too that we weren’t playing all that well, so I think that was somewhat of a wakeup call for us – that we needed to change some things, maybe get back to doing things the way we know how. Certainly it was motivation. We were 5-3 at the time. Not even sure if we were leading our division. And so we just knew that we had to improve, we had to get better. We made some changes and just continued to get a little bit better each week. That’s a big reason we’ve been able to rattle off nine in a row now.”

Q: Alex Smith said you two know each other a little bit. What have you seen from afar in the way he’s had a comeback year?

BREES: “I’ve been really happy for Alex. I know him – he’s a San Diego guy, from San Diego. I still spend some of the offseason there and train with a guy in San Diego. When Alex was first coming out of Utah he came and trained with us for a bit, and that’s where I met him. I know he kind of – just like every quarterback does – you face adversity, your ups and downs. I know there’s been a lot of coaching changes, a lot of different systems, just a lot of different variables that have been there for him. I think I admire how he’s hung in there and just continued to fight and just get a little better each week, each year. He’s just kind of waiting for that opportunity and trying to make the most of it. He’s had a phenomenal year. We’ve played some similar opponents so I’ve had a chance to see him play on film a little bit and I’ve just been really impressed with the way he’s grasped that offense in a short amount of time, some of the throws he’s making, the decision making, everything. He’s had a great year.”

Q: Some people expect a good quarterback to throw for a lot of yards like you do. What does he do on film that stands out?

BREES: “I would say his decision making. He’s only thrown five picks, and that’s a huge part of their success – the defense’s ability to take the ball away and the offense’s ability to take care of it. They’re plus-28 in the turnover ratio which is just phenomenal. I believe it’s tied for the best in NFL history, so there’s a reason they’ve been so successful. That’s the biggest stat in football – the turnover ratio, and he’s done a great job of taking care of it. So I’d say his decision making.

“He’s made some big throws in some big situations. I can recall the one against Seattle down the sideline to Crabtree on that drive to go down and kick a field goal and take the lead. I’ve seen him make some throws – a couple against Tampa, because we played Tampa the next week after they played them early in the season. He looks like he’s playing with a lot of confidence, and yet taking care of the football and being a great game manager, all those things. I’m happy for him.”

Q: A month ago the Titans held your offense to 22 points and you were 0-3 in the red zone. Why did the offense struggle in that game?

BREES: “We got down there three times – one was at the end of the half in the two-minute drill, and to be honest with you I missed Lance (Moore) on the throw. Had I thrown it a little bit better it would have been a touchdown, and then the other one I threw a touchdown and then it got reviewed and called back. I don’t know. We just fell a little bit short that day.”

Q: What changes on their defense stand out to you from when you played them early last season?

BREES: “Even though that was last year, if feels like forever ago just because that was the beginning of the season and here we are in the playoffs almost thirty-something games later. I would say the scheme is the same, a lot of their personnel is the same, and yet they’ve certainly made some additions to their team that have been pretty significant. Carlos Rogers has had a phenomenal year. Donte Whitner has had a great year. Aldon Smith has come in as a rookie and established himself as one of the best pass rushers in this league. You combine that with an already very stout defense that’s got great leadership – I know Justin Smith has been around a longtime, Patrick Willis and others – you see a defense that’s playing with a lot of confidence. They’re tough, they’re physical, they’re great tacklers – all those things that combine for winning defense. They’re playing as well as you can play right now.”

Q: Was getting right tackle Zach Streif back after the Rams game key for your team?

BREES: “Yeah. Streif was out for about four weeks, and so he came back the week after that Rams game. But there’s no excuse. The other guy did a great job, too. Like I said, I think we got away from some of the things that make us a great pass protecting team for that game. Obviously we’ve made significant improvements getting back to what we know the last nine or ten weeks.”

Q: Recognizing that you have won a Super Bowl, some say your offense is playing as well as it’s ever played since you’ve been there. Do you agree with that?

BREES: “Yeah, I do. I think that it’s a combination of being in the system now for six years, and I think we continue to evolve and make it better. We’ve got a lot of continuity in our personnel. So, you look at the offensive line, with the exception of our center who is a first year starter, all the other guys have been together now for three years playing together, four or five years that they’ve been on the team together. And then the receivers – all five receivers have been together now for five years. Tight end Jimmy Graham is a great young talent – he’s obviously a first-year starter. Sproles, it’s his first year here. Pierre Thomas has been here four years. You talk about continuity and consistency, a lot of guys have been in this system a long time and I just feel like we’re hitting our stride at the right time.”

Q: Talk about Jonathan Goodwin – he’s helped to solidify the 49ers offensive line.

BREES: “Yeah, Goody’s awesome. A starter here for us for three years – I felt like he was certainly one of the mainstays of our offensive line. At the center position that’s a guy who’s required to do a lot. I had a great relationship, great rapport with Goody and it was tough to see him go. Obviously it seemed like it was a great opportunity for him there and I’m happy to see him be so successful.”

Q: You’ve played the last four weeks on artificial surfaces. What do you think the adjustments will be – if any – that you’ll have to make coming back to grass.

BREES: “You don’t worry about the footing – how’s the grass, how’s the turf? I think it’s different when you’re playing on the west coast, on that type of grass as opposed to up north where it’s been snowed on or it’s icy or frozen or it’s just been torn up, that kind of thing. That’s just something that you go out beforehand and make sure you’ve got the right cleats and all that stuff.

Q: Has Sproles surprised you with the effect he’s had on the offense?

BREES: “Sprolesy? Sorry, I’ve got a bunch of nicknames for people. Sprolesy, he’s had a phenomenal year. He was a guy who I worked out with all offseason while we were locked out. I knew he was going to be a free agent and I just kept asking him every day, ‘Where do you think you’ll end up? Where do you think you’ll end up?” And he was like, ‘I don’t know.” So I said: “Well, I’d love it if you’d come play for us! I don’t know what’s going to happen with Reggie, but if he’s gone let’s make this happen.” Sure enough we trade Reggie to the Dolphins after the lockout ends and I kind of tell Coach Payton, our staff here, ‘We’ve got to get this guy, this guy’s something special.’ Sure enough, it works out, he comes here and ends up breaking the NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season. So, I think he’s certainly made a splash and made his mark and he’s a big part of what we do, and just yet another element to our offense.”

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