Sunday, December 16, 2012

Patriots Preview: Best of the NFC

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

What a great game for NBC on Sunday night.  Two teams building their defense around big, athletic linebackers, and with creative, outside-the-box offenses;  Balanced offense, play action, and gadget plays are on display with each team; Hard-hitting and opportunistic defenses on each squad: Coaches Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick have a lot of mutual respect for each other, and rightly so.  This game matches the best the NFC has to offer against a team that just dismantled a team in the Houston Texans that was supposed to have passed the Patriots as the best of the AFC.

PATRIOTS DEFENSE VERSUS 49ers OFFENSE: 

The 49ers have the controversial Colin Kaepernick as their starting QB, benching Alex Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage and in his last start before being injured, set an NFL record for completion percentage in a game with more than 20 pass attempts.  Kaepernick is a new-age college QB who can run the pistol, has a gun for an arm, and runs like a gazelle when he gets outside the pocket.  Kaepernick comes across like a gadget-QB, Tim Tebow 2.0, but really seems to be more like a west coast RGIII.  The problem with Kaepernick is that he is young, inexperienced, and not polished.  Is he the future for San Francisco? Sure. Is he getting them to the Super Bowl this season? I doubt it. 

The NFL Network had a a great stat up on Kaepernick, who has gone 31 as a starter beating New Orleans, Chicago, and Miami, while losing to St. Louis: 8-17 in the Red Zone; 20-54 on 3rd down.  Those types of numbers are going to kill a team going against Tom Brady on the other side.  Kicking field goals and/or turnovers and punting is what puts teams in a deep hole early and takes a team off its game plan, just ask Matt Schaub and Houston.  Kaepernick will make some plays, he is a play-maker, but he is not a pocket passer who can read the defense on 3rd down and make the right call and convert third downs over and over again to move the ball down the field against New England. With wide receiver Mario Manningham out, the 49ers are looking to extend drives with Randy Moss (yikes) and Michael Crabtree out wide. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker had better show up (and Kaepernick had better have him in his sights) because San Francisco needs yards in the air to convert third downs.

Against the Patriots, running the pistol is playing to the strength of the Patriots linebackers.  This lets New England play Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at linebacker all game and let them diagnose Kaepernick and put some hits on running backs and a running quarterback.  Last year, the Patriots faced Denver and Tim Tebow and destroyed him both times.  Letting this defense play downhill and get in the backfield is not what a team needs to do to win against New England.  Can 49ers running backs Frank Gore and 

With Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory established at Safety, the Patriots pass defense is set in the secondary and not giving up the big plays that Brandon Merriweather 2.0 (I mean, Patrick Chung) gave up earlier in the year being out of position again and again. Cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie surprise Alfonzo Dennard have settled in on the outside, allowing Kyle Arrington to play his natural position covering the slot receiver. This has the Patriots secondary in position to be a strength and not a weakness.

The Patriots defense has made huge strides in the past four weeks since settling the secondary after acquiring Aqib Talib from Tampa. Last week against Houston was a huge test, which they passed with flying colors. This week is a new challenge in San Francisco and their multiple offense looks. As good as the 49ers defense may be, holding Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to under 30 points at home is not likely to happen. This offense needs to move the ball and convert third downs, convert in the red zone, and keep the Patriots offense on the sidelines. I can see Colin Kaepernick coming out, throwing 3 interceptions and get blown out, but if they can click and keep the Patriots offense grounded and grind out long drives, I can see Kaepernick keeping the 49ers in the game and stealing a win on the road.   

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VERSUS 49ers DEFENSE: 

The Patriots offense against Houston found wide receiver Brandon Lloyd after he'd disappeared the last few weeks. While still not running out their two-headed monster at tight end (Rob-Aaron Gronkandez?), the Patriots offense still comes out with wrinkles that create big plays against mismatches.  Houston was supposed to have a defense that would take the Patriots offense out of their game and get them off the field, which they did in the middle of the game, but for the first time all season, the Patriots defense picked up the offense and held a big lead and never let Houston back into the game. What Houston could not do, was to come up with the big plays on defense and special teams to turn the game around. 

Credit the quarterback first and foremost.  Watching other teams with quarterbacks not named Peyton Manning, it is astounding how Brady and Manning take over a game pre-snap and identify and dissect the defense in front of them.  Very rarely is the wrong protection called, and when it it, Brady can throw the ball away knowing that one missed tackle on the next play is all it takes some days to keep the drive alive.  Tom Brady rarely makes a mistake throwing an interception. He still has the arm strength and smarts to get the ball where it needs to be.

His offensive line is getting healthy at last and will again face a big test as the 49ers bring the Smith boys around the corners. Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are premier pass rushers. The Patriots balance needs to be on display to off-set the pass rush much like they did last week. Expect to see the quick slants to the tight ends and slot receiver Wes Welker and screens to the running backs (especially Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen) to slow that pass rush.  Having running back Brandon Bolden back from his idiotic suspension for PEDs may be a boost to the running game, as his style is similar to Steven Ridley's (one cut and go hard) and can make an impact in a hurry.  Expect to see the Patriots continue to run the ball on second and long, as it has worked well for them all season long.

While the 49ers have a big pass rush outside, they are probably the only NFL team that has linebackers similar to the Patriots. The 49ers have their own Jerod Mayo in ILB Patrick Willis. Willis can cover in space in a zone defense, pick up a running back or tight end in man-coverage, and play downhill and find the running back and bring him down time and time again. The Patriots can only hope that linebacker Dont'a Hightower develops into a facsimile of NaVorro Bowman.  Bowman is yet another great Penn State linebacker who does everything on the field that his coaches ask of him. He is an all-pro machine who mirrors Willis on the field.  Tom Brady is going to be busy to identify Willis, Bowman, Smith, and Smith each and every play.  It is hard to believe Ahmad Brooks is the forgotten man in the 49ers linebacking corps with his 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick six so far this year.  

If there is a weakness to the defense in San Francisco, it is the secondary. When the safeties have to come up in run support and the pass rush doesn't get to the quarterback, they can be beat. Cornerback Carlos Rogers seems to shoot his mouth off more than make plays on the field lately, and on the other side, Tarell Brown is hardly a shut-down corner.  The safeties are the stars of this secondary, as Donte Whitner is a familiar face to the Patriots having played five years in the purgatory of Buffalo.  49ers Safety Dashon Goldson is hands-down the best player in the secondary, and if San Francisco cannot lock him up long-term, is going to be a hot name on the free agent market after being franchised last offseason.  Goldson is 28 and in his prime, can cover and tackle, and is a rare safety who can ball-hawk and run-stuff.  He is a beast (and would look great in the red, white, and blue of New England, hint, hint).

Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is the X-Factor on offense for the Patriots.  The 49ers were ripped in their tie (ugh, how embarrassing) against St. Louis by slot receiver Danny Amendola last month. The Welker clone caught 11 passes for 102 yards and gave the 49ers fits all game long.  No doubt, former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been running the tape of that game and taking notes all week long. The Patriots can stretch out the 49ers horizontally and pick apart the match-up all night long. Add in the weather, and that is a huge advantage for New England.  Wet field and ball favors the wide receivers and offensive linemen.  New England and Bill Belichick learned many years ago that running into the line is the worst game plan in existence when the weather is bad, yet teams not used to the elements do that consistently in some weird belief it is "conventional wisdom".  

Expect the Patriots to move quickly, not to get the 49ers caught substituting, but to wear down the defense and slow the pass rush.  A balance of mixing in runs on 2nd down and passing on 1st down inside to Wes Welker can put the Patriots in a position to dictate field position and force young 49er QB Colin Kaepernick into playing from behind and making mistakes.  Either way, I'll be waiting all day for Sunday night!



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