Vargas: Against rough-and-tumble 49ers, Saints seek to shed ‘finesse’ label

Under coach Sean Payton, it has never been the Saints’ style to spell out how important it is to exact revenge on an opponent who has knocked them around and foiled their goals in the past. So, on the day they host the San Francisco 49ers, let me do it for them.

No other moment more plainly illustrates the perception this football-crazed country has of Payton’s Saints and coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers than the one that occurred when New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas caught a short pass on his team’s first possession and collided with San Francisco safety Donte Whitner at the 2-yard line Jan. 14, 2012, at Candlestick Park. Few in New Orleans have forgotten what occurred next: Thomas fumbled after his helmet was hammered by Whitner’s, and the 49ers recovered.

Thomas immediately left the game. The 49ers went on to intercept Drew Brees twice and snatched away two more fumbles to win the divisional-round playoff game 36-32, eliminating a Saints offense that set the NFL record for yards in a season (7,474) but on that day ran the ball for a paltry 37 yards.

Renewed was the oft-heard debate about whether Payton’s Saints were a finesse team whose playmakers would wilt in the face of a hard-hitting defense. The Saints couldn’t silence that talk in 2012, when Payton was suspended for the year in the wake of the bounty scandal. New Orleans had the most porous defense in league history, and the 49ers returned two Brees interceptions for touchdowns to triumph 31-21 in Week 12.

The Saints, 5-5 when they kicked off against the Niners that day, lost the two games that followed and three of their next five to miss the playoffs and watch San Francisco play in the Super Bowl on their home turf.

Now, Payton has been back for nine games. The Saints have won seven of them with a the league’s No. 2 offense and a defense that, in its first year under coordinator Rob Ryan, is surrendering the seventh-fewest yards per game. It’s allowing the fifth-fewest total points and third-fewest yards through the air.

But questions persist about whether the Saints remain a team that’s susceptible to being outmuscled, and that’s mainly due to one loss: the Week 9 defeat at the New York Jets.

That day, Saints running back Darren Sproles had to leave the game on his team’s first possession because he absorbed a fierce hit. Brees was picked off twice, New Orleans abandoned the run and the Saints lost 26-20.

Sound familiar?

The Niners are no less fierce on D than the Jets. They’re no less fierce than when Whitner sent Thomas out the game or they plucked two pick-sixes off Brees.

They’re the NFL’s sixth best in total defense, fourth in rushing, and their 18 turnovers are the ninth-most in the league. Whitner and four of his teammates — tackle Justin Smith and linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman — are fresh off a Pro Bowl appearance last season.

But now the 49ers have to face Payton for the first time since the 2011 playoffs, and they do it in a building where he hasn’t lost since the end of the 2010 season.

It’s a building where the Saints are scoring 35 points an outing this year, and it’s there where the most impressive defense New Orleans has been able to throw at Harbaugh’s 49ers has held opponents to 17 or fewer points. It’s a building whose tenant has rushed the ball 103 times for a bountiful 491 yards (4.8 yards a carry) its past four games overall.

There won’t be a better chance for the Saints to shed the finesse label. And it’s high time they rip it off.

“We know we’re going to be in for a big physical game, but we know we’ve got big physical players,” Ryan said. “We’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

After having just one carry for no gain against San Francisco last year, Thomas sees Sunday as “a good chance to show what we could do against a team like that, match up with the same power.”

“That’s what we want to bring,” Thomas said. “That’s what we’re going to bring.”