Saints beat writer dopes out Saturday’s game

As part of our coverage, the Press Democrat proposed to Mike Triplett of The New Orleans Times-Picayune an exchange of questions, to which he readily agreed, so the PD could cast light on the Niners and Triplett could cast light on the Saints for Bay Area readers. Here are five questions and answers about the Saints plus a bonus question.

1. 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. 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’ve 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.”

2. 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.”

3. 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.”

4. People in the Bay Area aren’t as familiar with Drew Brees. What are his strong and weak points? Where is he vulnerable?

TRIPLETT: “Brees sees the field about as well as any quarterback that’s ever played the game. He has such a good feel for where things will open up – or where he has an opportunity to “throw a receiver open.” Everyone knows he shattered Dan Marino’s yardage record this year, but he also broke the NFL completion percentage record at the same time (71.2 percent). The previous record holder? Drew Brees, in 2009.

“He’s got a great offensive line, and he has the trust to step up into the pocket behind his guards to avoid edge pressure. He also makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball to avoid sacks. And he doesn’t play favorites. He throws to the open man in the progression, spreading the ball all over the field.

“Not many weak points, obviously. He will take some risks down the field and try to force balls sometimes, which leads to interception opportunities. He got away with a couple of those the other night against Detroit. But usually those risks pay off.”

5. Why are the Saints a tough matchup for the 49ers?

TIPLETT: “The offense, obviously, is playing about as well as any offense in NFL history right now. And even when they get off to a slow start, like they did against the Lions with just 10 first-half points, they can get to 45 points in the blink of an eye. So even if the 49ers manage to get a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, the Saints can make that up quickly. … If the 49ers are the ones who have to play catch-up, though, that’s a tall order for their offense.

“And I think the Saints defense is a bit underrated. They don’t get consistent pressure on quarterbacks, even though they blitz like crazy, and they haven’t forced enough turnovers this year. But they have great confidence in themselves, and they routinely come up big in big situations.

“Plus, they can nullify the Andy Lee factor with punter Thomas Morstead, the NFC Pro Bowl alternate who’s every bit as good.”

BONUS: Does Sean Payton hate Jim Harbaugh? Are their personalities similar or different?

TRIPLETT: “Honestly, I never got to the bottom of those preseason rumors that Payton was miffed at Harbaugh for not calling him. For all I know, it was fiction. But both guys are certainly intense, aggressive coaches who will be plenty motivated to pull out all the stops in this one, whether they like each other or not.”

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