SANTA CLARA One of the ways the 49ers will try to slow Drew Brees and the high- powered Saints offense: block the quarterback's view.
At 6 feet, Brees is one of the shortest quarterbacks in the league. He has overcome his low profile, however, with great awareness of where everyone is on the field and, according to 49ers defensive end Justin Smith, where the open gaps are along the line of scrimmage.
"He's just a really smart guy the way he attacks the pass rush," Smith said Wednesday. "He knows where those B-gap windows are going to be and he baits the outside rushers by dropping back, and then he steps up and slides to where he needs to be for his open receivers."
Clogging the B-gap (the gap between the offensive guard and tackle) is something Smith has done well this season. He did just that when he batted down an Eli Manning pass in the final seconds of a Week 10 game against the New York Giants to preserve a 27-20 victory. He and his fellow linemen must try to do the same against Brees, who set the NFL single-season record for passing yards in Week 16.
An unlikely source the two-win St. Louis Rams provided perhaps the best template for beating New Orleans.
The Rams defense harassed Brees into throwing two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, during St. Louis' 31-21 win in Week 8. The Rams sacked Brees six times and registered nine hits on the quarterback.
The matchup between Smith and Saints left guard Carl Nicks two All-Pro linemen promises to be one of the most intriguing battles Saturday. Meanwhile, fellow defensive end Ray McDonald will spend a lot of time going against another All-Pro, right guard Jahri Evans.
"After that (Rams) game, they really went to max (protection) 'Let's keep Drew clean so he can run the offense,' " Smith said. "We're going to have to overcome that. We're going to have to make sure we still get pressure without committing to the blitz a whole lot. To me, that's the key to the game defensively."
Davis surges Something clicked with Vernon Davis five weeks ago, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday, and the tight end has been more comfortable and more productive since.
Davis made several nice catches in the 49ers' Week 16 win over Seattle, and he followed that with a 118-yard effort, Davis' best of the year, in the finale against the Rams.
Davis said he agreed with Roman's timeline.
"When I first got in this offense it was almost like I wanted to quit, like, 'This is too much,' " Davis said. "It was too much information at one time that they were throwing on me and Delanie (Walker) and the rest of the tight ends. But we stuck with it, we learned as much as we possibly could and here we are. We're getting better and better each and every week."
Did Roman and the coaches pull back a bit, Davis was asked.
"No," he said with a laugh, "They just keep adding."
Et cetera McDonald (hamstring) returned to practice after missing the past three sessions. He was listed as limited on the team's participation report.
The other players listed as limited: cornerback Chris Culliver (knee) and wide receivers Ted Ginn (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion). Walker (jaw) is the only 49er who did not practice.
The 49ers signed long snapper Kyle Nelson to a two-year contract that will kick in when the league's new year begins in March. Nelson, who went undrafted out of New Mexico State, spent time with the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs this season and is expected to apprentice under veteran long snapper Brian Jennings next season.