‘Playbook’ mailbag: Brees gears up for Niner pass rush

The No. 3 seeds (Houston and New Orleans) are feeling pretty good about themselves after big wins in the wild-card round.

What kind of obstacles will they face this week?

We answered a couple of fans’ questions from Facebook in our weekly mailbag.

Saints at 49ers

Corey C. Favorite asked, “What will be the Saints’ biggest issue in San Francisco this Saturday?”

With all of the talk surrounding the Saints’ explosive offense, let’s not forget that the 49ers have one of the best –- if not the best – defenses in the league. And, as we saw with the Packers-Chiefs game in Week 15, any offense is susceptible to failure under the right kind of pressure.

And the 49ers can bring it.

While the Saints have a unique ability to pass out of running sets (i.e. two running backs and or tight ends) or run out of pass sets (single back, three and four wide receivers), San Francisco has the front seven to challenge any of New Orleans’ offensive linemen. Justin Smith is the “picker,” occupying blockers, for rookie Aldon Smith, who thrives in one-on-one situations.

The question for the Saints: Do you rely on Drew Brees to maneuver away from pressure in the pocket, or do you keep an extra man in to protect and limit how many eligible receivers are sent into routes?

In the wild-card round against the Lions, the Saints were conscious of the Lions’ pass rush and aligned “wing” backs, varying between running backs, tight ends, wide receivers or even an extra tackle, tight to the ends of the formation. They would chip and release, or protect the end and then release into a route.

Texans at Ravens

Josh Schlaflin asked, “Bengals were burning the Texans D in the screen game. Can they possibly stop the Ravens’ passing game with Ray Rice, who’s probably the best catching RB in the game?”

The Ravens certainly have an advantage with Rice as a receiver, especially against a Texans defense that plays man and will have to guard Baltimore’s star back with an athletically inferior defender.

Rice, and Matt Forte, might be the closest thing we’ve seen since Marshall Faulk, a multi-purpose back who plays on all downs and contributes this much to an offense. He can win routes at the top of his stem and then gain separation like a wide receiver.

Screens could be an effective way to get Rice the ball in the pass game, because the Texans love to bring the blitz and play man behind it. If you can clear out for Rice and give him room to work, Rice is a big play waiting to happen.

Because Rice is a dual-threat, you don’t need to run a screen to get Rice the ball in the pass game. Against the Texans’ man defense, he’ll most likely be matched up with a player like Brian Cushing, who is no match for Rice’s quickness in space. And, versus zone, Rice has the acumen to find voids and sit it down.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET (Saturday’s divisional playoff games) and 10 p.m. ET (Sunday’s divisional playoff games) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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