It appears that the New England Patriots are hitting their stride just as the 49ers started packing their bags for Foxboro. Most of us saw the drubbing they put on the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football this week. The optimist will point to the Texans’ easy schedule, calling Houston a pretender in an attempt to downplay the fight the 49ers are in for this Sunday. That may have a little something to do with it, but the truth is, Bill Belichick’s squad is neither an unstoppable force nor the peewee squad look-a-like the Cardinals beat on the road early this season, although their true identity probably falls closer to the former.
God, that Cardinals win feels like it happened last season, doesn’t it? The Pats are running the ball extremely well (something last year’s AFC Champions didn’t do), playing better defensively and Tom Brady is as surgical as the night is long.
However, there are some things the 49ers do well on both sides of the ball to make them a great matchup for the Patriots. There are things San Francisco will need to work on as well, but I would guess Harbaugh & Co. have been pondering this game for a while.
What will work for the 49ers — running the ball between the tackles
Many think the 49ers will need to get cute to hang with Tom Brady. I disagree. They didn’t have to huck the ball all over the field to beat Aaron Rodgers or Matthew Stafford, and they won’t need to do it now. The running game still butters the 49ers’ bread, even with Kaepernick under center. The Texans got away from the run pretty early in hopes of matching scores with the Pats and it didn’t work. The 49ers shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Texans’ ball: 2nd-and-14
Here’s a simple run between left guard and tackle. The guard chips the nose tackle and down blocks the middle linebacker while the center handles the nose and the left tackle seals off the outside linebacker. Arian Foster does the rest.
Everything seems to be going well at this point. Foster has a big hole to run through and only a safety to beat.
Unfortunately for the Texans, Duane Brown can’t hold his block on Rob Ninkovich. The linebacker makes a relatively easy ankle tackle and prevents what would have been a big gain. If the 49ers hold blocks, Frank Gore and LaMichael James should see some nice holes.
What won’t work for the Patriots — running the ball between the tackles
New England has balanced their passing attack with a healthy dose of the run this season. With speed in their backfield, they run the ball well, both outside and between the tackles. If they want to accumulate yards on the ground this week, though, it might be wise for them to take it outside.
Patriots’ ball: 2nd-and-10
Here’s Cal product Shane Vereen using his quickness to turn a cutback into a nine-yard gain. The play design is effective, but its success is aided by one badly missed tackle from safety Quintin Demps.
Vereen takes the hand off while all the Patriots’ linemen block right. Meanwhile, Aaron Hernandez pulls left and traps Connor Barwin. Barwin actually blows up Hernandez, but the tight end runs just enough interference for Vereen to get to the second level.
The Texans make two mistakes on this play: first, left tackle Nate Solder is free to get to the second level to block out inside linebacker Tim Dobbins. This is something Justin Smith probably won’t allow.
The second mistake is the poor angle from Demps, allowing Vereen to shake him and get even further downfield.
Because of Demps’s over-pursuit, Vereen gets to the outside with plenty of space. The 49ers’ safeties must show better discipline.
What WILL work for the Patriots offense — the short passing game
Here is what’s giving me fits at night, regardless of how well BASG did assuring us that the 49ers can handle Wes Welker. The 49ers’ corners (Chris Culliver especially) have been successful neutralizing the deep ball this season, but teams have been able to chip away at this defense with short passes. Here’s one example of how the Patriots might try and exploit this.
Patriots’ ball: 1st-and-10
Tight end Daniel Fells is going to run a seam, leaving only Darryl Sharpton to handle Welker.
The key to this play’s effectiveness is Welker’s stutter step, which leads Sharpton outside while Welker cuts back towards the hashmarks.
After that, it’s an easy first down for Brady. Welker took this pass for 12 yards and the Patriots scored on the next play.
Just like they did against the Packers, the 49ers will probably run a nickel package for most of this game. That means one of the corners will be covering Welker in this situation, but regardless of who’s out there, they’ll have to be physical at the line and disciplined in space. If the Pats get these kinds of gains with frequency, it’ll be difficult for the 49ers to hang with them.