The Saints are zeroing in this week on a high profile battle against the San Francisco 49ers that is about respect and proving the Black and Gold can impose its will against any opponent - even one that has gotten the better of the Saints two years in a row.
Sunday's clash between the two inside the New Orleans Superdome will be a rematch for post season position and bragging rights: the Saints would love to avenge that painful loss to the 49ers in the playoffs two seasons ago at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco, in fact, has beaten the Saints twice in a row: following up that playoff win with a 31-21 victory over the Black and Gold at the Dome last year.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has spent much of his week meticulously studying the 49ers defense and the challenge he faces.
"As good as they've ever been. There's an expectation level every time you play those guys," Brees said. "They're extremely disciplined and very talented. A lot of individually great players. Obviously when you put them in there as a unit, they play very, very well together. There's a definite style, a definite scheme that they just execute to perfection. When you look at what they've been able to accomplish over the last two and a half years, it's been pretty impressive. The last two times we played them, it's been a tough match up. I think the biggest areas, things that they kind of pride themselves on, are stopping the run, being physical and getting the ball out. They're still tops in the league in turnovers. You've got a lot of ball hawks on that team."
Sunday's clash will be a reunion of sorts for Saints linebacker Parys Haralson - whom the 49ers traded to the Black and Gold at the beginning of this season in exchange for a 7th round draft pick in 2014.
Haralson was well-respected in San Francisco, where he was known as "P-Town" and embraced his role as a locker room leader.
Now, Haralson bleeds black and gold and will only give his former defense minor props.
"I think they have a solid defense, a bunch of guys that have been playing together for a while," Haralson said. "They've always had a good defense ever since those guys got there. It's just guys who have played together longer that have gotten acclimated to each other. I wouldn't say they've done a great job playing against the Saints. They're just a solid defense that plays well together."
This Sunday, both the Saints and the 49ers are looking to the run game to provide an edge.
San Francisco is averaging 4.5 yards per rushing attempt versus New Orleans 3.8 yards per attempt.
The Saints will try to keep the 49ers one-dimensional and avoid allowing them to control the clock.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick hasn't used his legs as much as he has in previous seasons, but says he's ready to unleash them whenever necessary.
"He clearly has evolved to someone who understands not only the running game, but they also do a lot with him at the line of scrimmage," said Saints head coach Sean Payton. "He's involved in getting them in the right scheme at the line of scrimmage. You'll see some shifts and you will see him directing traffic at the line and getting the best look that they want to run against. But as a passer, I thought he made a ton of strides last year. You saw game-after-game, the confidence he had going all the way to the Super Bowl, and you see that carry over this year."
The 49ers rank fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 148 ground yards per game.
Meanwhile with Brees and his accurate arm at the helm, the Black and Gold don't need to rely as heavily on the ground attack, but they do want to launch a more balanced attack that provides the perfect combination of pass vs. run to keep the 49ers guessing.
"Certainly the element of physicality when you think about the run game just because you have to make them tackle you," Brees explained."I think the passing game gets the perception of being this finesse style offense. If you're executing it efficiently, not turning the ball over and you're scoring 40 points per game, call it whatever you want. It's getting the job done, you know? I think just the philosophy of you've got to run the ball in this league to win, period. Nobody is able to go out there and throw it 50 times a game and win. You have to have a combination."
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