SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The offense was stagnant, Alex Smith was ineffective and the offensive line was completely overmatched.
Few would have thought the San Francisco 49ers who opened the Jim Harbaugh era with an exhibition dud at New Orleans would be playing the Saints five months later with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.
“It’s not even the same team,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “There’s so much more confidence.”
In that 24-3 loss at the Superdome, the 49ers were completely overwhelmed by New Orleans’ heavy blitz package.
With no off-season because of the lockout and just two weeks of practice to implement a new system, San Francisco failed to get a first down on its first four drives. In the first half, the Niners allowed six sacks and completed four passes while collecting as many penalties (five) as first downs. Smith went 2-for-7 for 10 yards.
That seems a lot longer than five months ago.
Smith had by far his best season as a professional. He set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), yards passing (3,199) and passer rating (90.7) while playing mostly mistake-free ball to help
the 49ers go 13-3 and win the NFC West.
The offensive line gelled to spark a strong running game by Frank Gore, and the offense did just enough to support one of the league’s top defenses and special teams units.
“We’re really improved,” center Jonathan Goodwin said. “At that point we had maybe two weeks of practice. It was tough. We didn’t want to make any excuses. It’s tough as a line to not play together.”
Much was made after the game about a report that Saints coach Sean Payton went with a heavy blitz package because he was upset Harbaugh did not call him so there could be a “gentlemen’s agreement” to how the teams would approach the exhibition game.
Harbaugh said he even asked his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, about whether that was proper protocol.
“He wasn’t aware of all that,” Jim Harbaugh said.
The 49ers will need to handle the blitz better this week. According to STATS LLC, the Saints had the second most blitzes in the league this season with 365, trailing only Green Bay. The plays were effective, too, as New Orleans held opponents to a 48.1 percent completion percentage against the blitz with 24 sacks and five interceptions on 316 throws.