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SANTA CLARA -- Drew Brees will go up against a 49ers defense Sunday that will not feature Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
But the New Orleans Saints quarterback still faces a big challenge from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s best-of-both-worlds scheme.
“What’s most impressive is the fact they’re still very opportunistic,” Brees said this week on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “They’re tops in the league in getting turnovers, yet they don’t take chances in order to do that.”
Brees pointed out that generally teams that create a lot of big plays also give up a lot of big plays. Teams that create turnovers with a scheme that relies on a variety of blitzes also find themselves vulnerable in pass coverage because they are forced to weaken themselves in other areas.
But the 49ers are different, Brees said.
“The 49ers are best in the league at limiting big plays,” Brees said. “So that’s a great combination, a great balance on defense, when you’re not giving up big plays and you’re taking the ball away.”
The 49ers have surrendered only 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks as the stingiest defense in the league. The 49ers are second-best in the NFL in total yards allowed. Meanwhile, the 49ers have also forced 13 turnovers in eight games.
“So that’s very impressive, even more so because there are some guys in there who are in place of guys like Bowman and Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis, who has been out for a couple of games, and some guys in the secondary, as well,” Brees said. “So they’re all playing very well together, and that’s something you’ve come to expect from a 49ers defense.”
[RELATED: Willis looks doubtfull for Saints game]
One example of the 49ers’ non-gambling philosophy came on a third-and-4 play against the Saints last season. Instead of dialing up a blitz, the 49ers essentially dropped nine defenders into coverage.
Brees was provided with a full eight seconds of protection against two pass-rushers. But he could not find anyone open down the field. Finally, he tried to dump off a pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, but outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks made the interception.
“I don’t think they try to overly disguise anything,” Brees said. “They just play it as you see it. But they got guys who play with a lot of confidence. They have pretty good ball skills on the back end. I think (Antoine) Bethea was a great addition. Played against him when he was with the Colts for a while. He’s a great football player. I think Perrish Cox is having a great year with all the turnovers he’s created and a bunch of pass-breakups.
"I think they all play with a lot of confidence. They play well together. They complement what’s happening up front. That front seven is pretty formidable as well. All in all, it’s an extremely solid defense.”