Originally posted on This Given Sunday  |  Last updated 1/13/12

No coach had a bigger, more immediate impact in the 2011 NFL season than Jim Harbaugh with the 49ers, and he did it without a major infusion of offensive talent. The Niners improved on offense by 75 points with essentially the same cast of players as last year. Most notably, he showed amazing faith in downtrodden quarterback Alex Smith, getting him a copy of the playbook during the Lockout's lull, even though Smith was not under contract to return to the team. (An aside: Who else wanted him?) Smith responded with a career year, leading the team to a 13-3 record.

Now, though, they face Drew Brees and one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. No matter how good the Niners' defense is, Smith will have to put points on the board in order to win. Can he do it, and can the D keep the game close enough to win?

To get the answers to these questions and more, we talked to Grant Cohn, 49ers Insider for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Here's what he had to say:

TGS: Harbaugh has transformed Alex Smith from ugly duckling to something resembling a swan. Can it last?

Cohn: Yes, I don't think Alex Smith will revert. I think Alex Smith will be a slightly better quarterback next year with a full offseason under Harbaugh and a couple additions at wide receiver. Still, he benefits from a good run game and a great defense and special teams.

The Niners don't need a play maker at quarterback right now to be a dominant team - they have the most talented roster in the league. If and when that changes, the Niners would probably have to upgrade at quarterback. That's probably a couple seasons down the line, and that's probably what Colin Kaepernick is for.

TGS: What do Smith's key playmakers (Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis) have to do in this game?

Cohn: Gore needs to help the offensive line pick up the blitz. As far as running the ball, he may split carries with Kendall Hunter, who's a much quicker and faster back. The Niners probably need 160 rushing yards combined from these two guys. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis need to catch the ball when it comes their way and they especially need to make plays in the red zone.

TGS: The Niners' defense has become a dominant force despite playing for an offensive guru. What changes has Harbaugh made?

Cohn: He brought in Vic Fangio to be the defensive coordinator, and general manager Trent Baalke made a bunch of good personnel decisions.

Baalke let nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin go to the Saints in free agency and re-signed Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald instead - two key cogs in the greatest run defense of all time. He drafted Aldon Smith who's already one of the most important players on the team. He let Takeo Spikes go to the Chargers in free agency and gave the job to NaVorro Bowman who was completely unproven but now is an All-Pro inside linebacker. He signed Carlos Rogers (Pro Bowl) and Donte Whitner (Pro Bowl alternate).

Every single personnel move they made on defense worked out - and Harbaugh wasn't responsible for any of them. The general manager gets most of the credit.

TGS: Who are the unsung players on this team that will have to step up?

Cohn: Anthony Davis, the 22 year old right tackle has to step up. You've got to imagine the Saints are going to test him with overload blitzes. Ted Ginn Jr. has to step up - he's starting opposite Crabtree at wide receiver. [Editor's note: the 49ers released an ineffective Braylon Edwards in Week 17 of the regular season, giving Ginn the starting job.]

And Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock - the 49ers other cornerbacks - will have to step up. The Saints run some four and five-wide sets, and Tramaine Brock's going to have to prove he can match up with Robert Meachem or Devery Henderson. Chris Culliver will have to cover Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham one-on-one at points. The Saints secondary receivers are much more heralded than the Niners corners not named Carlos Rogers. The young cornerbacks will have to step up.

TGS: What's your gameplan against the Saints?

Cohn: The Niners want to make this a low-scoring game, and they might be able to. They'll shut down the Saints' terrific run game without having to over-commit defenders. They'll make the Saints one-dimensional, and then they'll be able to pressure Brees with just four rushers, allowing them to drop seven players in coverage.

Aldon and Justin Smith play right next to each other and they play off each other excellently. The Niners top defense will force the Saints to turn the ball over, and that will be the difference in the game.

TGS: Who is the X-factor for the 49ers?

Cohn: Patrick Willis. He's coming back from a hamstring injury. He played two weeks ago, he was rusty and he ended up playing one of his worst games. When healthy, he's the Willie Mays of inside linebackers.

He'll have to cover the 6'7" Jimmy Graham sometimes and the 5'6" Darren Sproles other times. Willis is fast and strong enough to hold his own in both matchups, but is he healthy enough?

Our thanks to Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read his work at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com, and catch him on Twitter at @GrantCohn.

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