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John DeShazier: Saints, 49ers quite different from 2012 teams

Saints defense is much improved from last season

This isn't last year's New Orleans Saints defense, and that memo can't be distributed often enough as the season progresses and the competition stiffens.

The Saints' defense of 2012 allowed 440.1 yards and watched opponents score 28.4 points per game, while the defense of '13 has hacksawed those numbers to 317.6 and 18.1, and has been as forceful about it as the decrease suggests.

And this week, it could be an opportune time to be better because it will face a San Francisco 49ers offense that isn't quite the same as the 2012 Niners offense.

Last season control of San Francisco's offense was turned over to then-second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and he proceeded to wring out opposing defenses, to the tune of 1,814 passing yards, 415 rushing yards and 15 combined touchdowns passing and running, in 13 games and seven starts during the regular season.

But this offense hasn't operated with the efficiency of the one that read-optioned its way to the Super Bowl, averaging 473.3 yards in three playoff games, with Kaepernick passing for 798 yards (266 per game), running for 264 (88 per game) and accounting for seven touchdowns along the way.

This Niners offense is last in the league in passing (173.9 yards per game) and Kaepernick already has thrown twice as many interceptions (six) as he did all last season.

So it's not unreasonable to believe the Saints (7-2) will have more success defensively against San Francisco (6-3) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome than they've have the previous two encounters, both San Francisco wins.

In a 2012 NFC divisional playoff win, San Francisco totaled 407 yards (143 rushing) in a 36-32 decision. And last year, in a 31-21 win in the Superdome, the Niners finished with 390 yards, 144 of them rushing.

But even with Kaepernick and the passing offense struggling, the Saints know the Niners' preference is to rely on the running game, anyway. San Francisco still does that extremely well (147.7 yards per game, fourth in the league, and 15 rushing touchdowns) and running back Frank Gore (700 rushing yards, seven touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry) hasn't slowed down.

 "He is very durable, he's got very good vision and balance," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "I would describe him as strong. He's a guy that's difficult to bring down with one player.

"All the things you preach defensively is (getting) numbers to the ball, but he does a lot of things well. The first thing that comes to my mind is consistency and how long he's done it.  He's very durable. He's a special player."

And the Saints figure San Francisco will turn to him, and Kaepernick, especially in the Superdome, where a major goal will be to control the clock and keep the Saints' offense off the field.

"They're a smash-mouth football team," outside linebacker Junior Galette said. "If you don't stop the run it's going to be a long day for us. We know that up front. (If) we stop the run with our front seven, then we can do everything else that's in the gameplan.

"We have plans for anything else that they do, but we know that this quarterback and this running back – he's a great back and they'll find those little holes and gash you if you don't stop the run. So we have to do that before we do anything else."

The Saints are 24th in the league against the run (117.7 yards per game allowed, on 5 yards per carry) and in a 26-20 loss to the Jets two weeks ago, allowed 198 rushing yards. But last week against Dallas, New Orleans allowed 89 yards rushing and before the Jets game, Buffalo totaled 88.

"We've got to be sound," inside linebacker David Hawthorne said. "Kaepernick adds a different element to the game as a runner. Him being that dual quarterback, we'll have to do some stuff to make sure we're covered for that look.

"We're definitely up for it. We all play this game the same way, and that's to go out and out-hit your opponent. It's going to be a hard-hat kind of game."

Said Payton: "It's being ready with our plan and making sure we're fitting it the right way. It's all the fundamentals of getting off blocks and playing blocks a certain way. Generally, any good run defense involves more than just a few people. It involves effort to the football and numbers to the football."

And it could help that San Francisco's offense isn't quite what it was last season, and that neither is New Orleans' defense.

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