Saints notebook: Vitt knows 49ers present daunting challenge

When taking a long look at the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said their 21-6-1 record doesn’t begin to tell how good they’ve been under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

Included is a 9-3 road record, one of the best marks in the NFL since Harbaugh took over in 2011. That’s not all they’re good at, Vitt said.

“I think it’s amazing when you go back and look at the formula that they’ve had for winning the last two years,” said Vitt, who will face the 49ers for the second time in 10 months Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “Last year, they led the league in protecting the football. Last year, they led the league in taking the ball away. Last year, they led the league in defense.”

On and on it went, with Vitt pointing out that the 2011 Niners led the league in stopping the run, in short-field possessions, taking the ball over inside the 50 and in short field points.

This season, they lead the league in rushing and are second in defense — including second against the pass and sixth against the run.

“It all starts from being a physical football team, and they want to grind it and wear you down,” Vitt said. “That’s really the staple in the foundation of what they do. They stop the run, and they run the ball.”

Taking it away

As Vitt mentioned, another staple of the Niners’ rugged defense is takeaways. They had a league-leading 38 in 2011 and have 15 this season, giving them 53 in 26 regular-season games under Harbaugh.

The Saints certainly know. In their 36-32 divisional playoff loss to the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Jan. 14, the Niners forced three fumbles and intercepted Drew Brees twice.

The biggest came at the end of the Saints’ first possession. After his team drove to the 49ers’ 7, Pierre Thomas fumbled after a brutal hit from safety Donte Whitner, who knocked Thomas out with a concussion.

Vitt’s value

After going 2-4 under Aaron Kromer, the interim to the interim coach, the Saints are 3-1 since Vitt returned for the Denver game Oct. 28.

With a combination of Kromer and Vitt, the Saints have won five of their past six games and are back in the playoff picture.

“After the Denver game has been the real push, and I think there’s a feeling we’re starting to hit our stride and find a rhythm,” Brees said. “You can feel it. You can see the results.

“Joe, he brings a lot of institutional knowledge, not only about what we do here but he’s been around the game since 1979. That’s the year I was born, so 33 years, his stories about this league … he can just go down the roster about all these great teams from the past, and usually there’s an anecdote or a story that would apply to something we’re going through.”

Practice report

Saints DE Junior Galette (ankle), CB Corey White (knee), T Charles Brown (knee), CB Elbert Mack (concussion) and LB Ramon Humber (illness) did not participate in Thursday’s practice. T Zach Strief (groin) was limited for the second day in a row.

Vitt said if White and Mack can’t play Sunday, the team could move free safety Malcolm Jenkins to corner, the position he played as a rookie in 2009, to help out Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick.

Another step

The Saints can do something Sunday that only one other team has done since the NFL realigned and went to four-team divisions in 2002.

From 2002-11, according to research done by New Orleans-based writer Guerry Smith, 36 teams started 0-4 — as the Saints did this season. Only one of them, the 2006 Tennessee Titans, was able to rebound and get above the .500 mark at any time that season. The Titans finished 8-8 that year.

The Saints, who are 5-5, can join them with a win Sunday.

Horn to appear

Former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn will appear at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum before Sunday’s game.

Horn, a four-time Pro Bowl pick and a Saints Hall of Famer, will greet fans from 1-2:30 p.m. There is no admission charge to the museum for ticket holders for three hours before and 45 minutes after each home game.