Saints facing tough task against NFC West-leading 49ers

When taking a long look at the San Francisco 49ers, 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, which Vitt said is the best 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 just 10 months on 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 overall 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,” he 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.

The Saints certainly know. In their 36-32 divisional playoff loss to the 49ers in Candlestick Park last Jan. 14, the Niners came up with three fumbles and intercepted Drew Brees twice.

The biggest came at the end of the Saints’ first possession, when, after driving all the way to the 49ers’ 7, Pierre Thomas fumbled after a brutal hit from safety Donte Whitner which knocked Thomas out with a concussion.

VITT’S VALUE: After going 2-4 under Aaron Kromer, the interim to the interim coach, the Saints have gone 3-1 since Vitt returned for the Denver game on Oct. 28.

With a combination of Kromer and Vitt, the Saints have won five of their last six games and are in the playoff picture going into the final six games.

“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,” he said. “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: For the Saints, DE Junior Galette (ankle), CB Corey White (knee), T Charles Brown (knee), CB Elbert Mack (concussion) and LB Ramon Humber (ill) 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, they could move free safety Malcolm Jenkins in to corner, his position as a rookie in 2009, to help Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick out.

ANOTHER STEP: While they’re not concerned with stats at this point, 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, were able to rebound and get above the .500 mark at any time in the season. The Titans finished 8-8 that year,

The Saints, who are 5-5, can join them with a win over the Niners.

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.