It’s every 49ers fan’s worst nightmare on Sunday* night: Wes Welker spends the entire game Amendoling out punishment in the form of receptions, yards after the catch, and first downs by the bushel; the Foxboro patrons shout “LET’S GO WELKAH” at the tops of their lungs; Bill Simmons starts writing a 5,000-word column about the 49ers’ defense being overrated.
Does it have to be this way?
Welker will get his catches. He already has 95 this year through 13 games, which equates to over seven per contest. The 49ers’ defense is the league’s best in terms of points allowed, but it isn’t perfect. They give up third down catches that move the chains like every other team. After all, NFL rules prevent defenses from stopping even the most rudimentary passing attacks, let alone the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (which the Patriots boast by far).
Besides trite advice like “pressure Tom Brady” or “don’t miss tackles,” how do the 49ers prepare for the Patriots’ most frightening receiving weapon (non-Gronk division)? After talking about this quite a bit with BADG on today’s BASGcast, I thought it was worth a post.
1. Avoid using Carlos Rogers.
Not entirely, as he’s still a valuable performer. But Rogers showed that guys like Danny Amendola (a poor man’s version of Welker, arguably) give him fits. Of the three top cornerbacks on the team, Rogers has been the least effective this season, but he can be trusted to limit Brandon Lloyd’s production.
2. Which means Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver should share slot responsibilities.
Brown is probably the 49ers’ quickest corner, with the “fluid hips” NFL execs prize. He’s up to the challenge of containing Welker. Culliver is bigger, but that could also help as teams have had some success against Welker with physical tactics near the line of scrimmage. One thing they 49ers should not do is play zone all night, because Brady will pick them apart.
3. Utilize the most fearsome safety tandem in the league.
Welker lives in the middle of the field; the 49ers have spent the last two years punishing receivers who dare roam across that region. Welker and Aaron Hernandez have the option to take their routes inside or outside, depending on how they’re being played. If Brown or Culliver give Welker the inside, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner should be ready to smash Welker. Since Welker leads the NFL in drops with 14, fierce (yet legal, of course … winkyface) hits could lead to the Patriots’ leading receiver putting the ball on the ground or tapping it to a Niners defender. Welker said the 49ers’ safeties “aren’t afraid of contact” in a conference call with reporters today. Nobody has ever questioned Welker’s toughness, but he’s clearly already thinking about the types of hits he’d probably rather avoid.
From Rogers, who against my wishes sounds like he’ll see the most time in the slot across from Welker:
“Those quick guys like that, especially when you face a good quarterback, it’s going to take a lot, not just me sticking him, but Dashon (Goldson) coming down inside, some of the D-ends hitting those guys.”
4. Don’t forget the linebackers.
Matt Barrows has a good point on how the 49ers will attempt to stop New England, quietly one of the better running teams in the league (the Patriots is 7th in the NFL in rushing yards, 5th in passing yards). It comes in the form of the 49ers’ nickel defense, which is unique in terms of personnel.
The 49ers’, however, have one of the best nickel defenses in the league, one that fares particularly well against the run because it employs two inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
The 49ers were primarily in their nickel – and sometimes, dime – defenses this year against the Packers, the Lions and the Saints, all of them prolific passing teams. The 49ers held those quarterbacks to passer ratings of 93.3, 78.9 and 86.1 respectively, and San Francisco won all three games.
Remember that hit Willis put on Calvin Johnson? The 49ers wouldn’t mind seeing that take place again, with Welker playing the role of Johnson.
5. Players coaching players.
More from Taylor Price’s story about Rogers:
The veteran cornerback is picking the brain of Donte Whitner, a longtime rival of Brady and the Patriots from his days in the AFC East.
Rogers is also seeking the wisdom of former Patriots wideout Randy Moss, the very same player who recorded 50 touchdown receptions in 52 games for New England from 2007-10.
“He knows Brady’s checks,” Rogers said of Moss. “He knows where the ball is going.”
If Moss is truly as smart as everyone says he is, he probably has a few nuggets of advice that the 49ers would hear no place else.
After writing about this, it’s easier to feel a tiny bit more optimistic. Perhaps the 49ers can figure out how to contain Welker — hold him to 5 catches for 50 yards as opposed to 12 catches for 130 yards and a TD. If the 49ers play disciplined nickel defense and show Welker that the most physical team in football resides on the other coast in the other conference, maybe we won’t have to avoid Grantland on Monday morning after all.
*When you’ll hopefully be watching the game with us and celebrating BASG’s 5th Anniversary!