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January 8, 2012
The longest yards: Analyzing the 49ers' biggest defensive breakdowns of 2011

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The New Orleans Saints have a pretty explosive offense. You may have read that somewhere. The team had four plays of 40 or more yards - two of them for touchdowns - in their win Saturday against the Lions, and that's just a normal day at the office for the league's top-rated passing attack. Receivers Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham all are capable of long-distance strikes on any given down.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have one of the top defenses in the league. But if the unit has had a soft spot this season, it's in preventing big, downfield plays. The 49ers have given up 12 passing plays of 40 or more yards this season, which is tied for fifth-most in the NFL. (The Saints gave up the most 40-plus-yard pass plays this season, 14).

The 49ers don't necessarily have to eliminate big plays on Saturday. They gave up two 40-plus yarders (see below) to Michael Vick and the Eagles in Week 4 and still won. But neither went for touchdowns. Their ability to keep the Saints out of the end zone and their pass rush on Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be critical on Saturday.

Here's a look at the dirty dozen this season with a breakdown of the six longest. You'll notice that the 12 plays came against only six different teams. Most of these plays were short or intermediate passes that ended up becoming big gains after the catch.

1. 77 yards. Tony Romo to Jesse Holley, Week 2
After the Cowboys forced a 49ers punt in overtime, Romo hit Holley for a big gain to the San Francisco 1-yard line that set up an easy game-winning field goal for the Cowboys. Two newcomers to the 49ers defense this season, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner, were burned badly on the play. Both bit on a stretch run play fake and allowed Holley to run past them. Romo hit Holley 30 yards down field, and the receiver ran the rest of the way. Whitner at least chased down the receiver before the end zone.

2. 61 yards. Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson, Week 4
Late in the third quarter, Vick dropped back five steps. The 49ers, as they typically do, rushed four and the Eagles double teamed Aldon Smith to Vick's left. Vick had plenty of time to throw and he uncorked a long throw to Jackson down the right center of the field. Jackson had a step on cornerback Tarell Brown, who had no help from safety Reggie Smith on the play. Brown was able to trip up Jackson as the ball arrived. The Eagles eventually attempted a field goal on the drive, which was no good.

3. 60 yards TD. John Skelton to Early Doucet, Week 14
Following a missed field goal (and a wiped-away fake field goal) in the second quarter, the 49ers rushed only three against Skelton and the Cardinals. He had plenty of time to throw and hit Doucet 18 yards in the center of the field. Safety Dashon Goldson dove at Doucet early but missed. The receiver then picked up a big block by Larry Fitzgerald, who eliminated the only defender who had a shot at catching Doucet, cornerback Tarell Brown.

4. 55 yards TD. Tarvaris Jackson to Doug Baldwin, Week 1
Late in the fourth quarter with the 49ers leading 19-10, the 49ers blitzed both linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Donte Whitner. Baldwin found a soft spot in the defense eight yards down field. Safety Reggie Smith seemed to overrun the play, and Baldwin had no one between him and the end zone. About 47 of the yards gained came after the catch.

5. 53 yards TD. Romo to Miles Austin, Week 2
Leading 14-0 late in the first half, the 49ers sent four pass rushers at Romo. Cornerback Tramaine Brock was opposite Austin, who was lined up wide to Romo's left. When Austin cut inside, Brock slipped and fell. Romo hit the receiver seven yards down field, Austin put a move on safety Reggie Smith and then went into the end zone untouched.

6. 53 yards. Skelton to Larry Fitzgerald, Week 14
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the 49ers rushed four. Out of play action, Skelton threw a quick pass to Fitzgerald over Carlos Rogers, who tried to undercut the pass. The throw hit Fitzgerald in stride, and he spun out of an arm tackle by linebacker Larry Grant at midfield. Safety Donte Whitner eventually took Fitzgerald down at the San Francisco 20 yard line. The play would set up the Cardinals' game-winning touchdown.

7. 46 yards. Skelton to Larry Fitzgerald, TD, Week 14
8. 45 yards. Vick to Jackson, Week 4
9. 45 yards. Colt McCoy to Josh Cribbs, TD, Week 7
10. 45 yards. Skelton to Andre Roberts, Week 11
11. 44 yards. Jackson to Ricardo Lockette, Week 16
12. 41 yards. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, Week 6

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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