SAN FRANCISCO The other 10 players on the 49ers' defense should consider themselves lucky they did not find themselves in Donte Whitner's path on Saturday.
Teammates lauded the sixth-year safety's bone-jarring collisions as San Francisco forced five turnovers in the team's 36-32 NFC divisional playoff win over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.
"I told myself that I was going to hit everything moving out there today," Whitner said. "I was going to be extremely physical, even if it was my own guys.
"Luckily I didn't have to hit my own guys."
On the game's opening drive, New Orleans drove to the 49ers' 7-yard line. Saints starting running back Pierre Thomas caught a screen pass on the right side and turned upfield looking for the end zone, only to be met by Whitner's helmet square on his forehead. The ball immediately popped out and was scooped up by linebacker Patrick Willis. Thomas crumpled to the turf and left the game, reportedly with a concussion.
"I don't know if he felt anything," Whitner said. "I didn't feel it; my adrenaline was running through me. It's a blur, really."
The hit sent a shock wave that would reverberate for the next three hours, setting the tone for a brutal display from the NFL's top-ranked defense.
"That just showed what type of defense we are," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "It's all about running around, being relentless and playing within the scheme."
In addition to preventing a red-zone scoring opportunity, it altered the Saints' game plan.
"Obviously, it's tough to lose Pierre, especially on the first series for the rest of the game, because he's such a big part of what we do," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Whitner said from that point on, the Saints were more predictable, as they do not like to use No. 2 running back Darren Sproles between the tackles, preferring to use him on screen plays.
Late in the second quarter following an interception by cornerback Tarell Brown, again it was time for Whitner to send a message. He did so by de-cleating intended receiver Devery Henderson blocking for a possible return by Brown. Never mind that Brown had been whistled down by contact on the play.
While the defense was doing its job, getting turnovers on two of New Orleans' first three drives, it also was inspiring a plucky special-teams unit looking to make an impact.
"We're a physical team, and to see that the way our defense plays I wouldn't want to step on the field to go against them," linebacker and special-teams ace Blake Costanzo said. "It charged us all up."
Costanzo was in on both special-teams takeaways on Saturday, recovering a fumble on a kickoff in the first quarter and forcing one on a punt in the third. Both resulted in David Akers field goals.