It's a potential Super Bowl preview this Sunday night with the 49ers coming to Foxboro, Mass. to face the Patriots. For the second straight week New England will face some of the NFL iron, and the 49ers defense could be the biggest test Tom Brady and the potent Patriots offense faces this season.
Let's break down 10 keys to the game for the Patriots to come out on top and ascend to the top spot in everyone's power rankings.
The 49ers run defense is an impregnable wall, with the stout 3-4 front of NT Isaac Sopoaga, and DEs Ray McDonald and Justin Smith leading the way. The 49ers are second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (90.8), and both of their inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are physical and decisive tacklers.
Earlier in the year when the Patriots were demonstrating a new found ability to move the ball on the ground behind Stevan Ridley, there were still doubts whether or not the Pats had a ground-and-pound ability to run on a top run defense when they're in the base. This isn't the week to try and prove that point.
Instead, the Pats should aim to get the 49ers in their sub package and try to run on them then. But lining up in a power formation in an attempt to "establish the run" is futile against the 49ers.
Expect a heavy dose of Danny Woodhead, where he can expect to see Patrick Willis in coverage. The Pats should test Willis with a scatback like Woodhead not only running the ball but in the short passing and screen game as well.
Football Outsiders has the the 49ers pass coverage against running backs ranked 23rd.That is the area to attack, not trying to run Stevan Ridley into the teeth of their defense.
The 49ers other pass defense rankings by target:
- vs. #1 WR: 6th
- vs. #2 WR: 10th
- vs. Other WR: 16th
- vs. TE: 16th
When the Pats must run it, (hopefully to seal the game) it should be up the middle where FO ranks the 49ers 17th. They're top six defending every other gap. And they're especially tough on the edges where they're fifth (offensive left) and third (offensive right).
There's no question, Nate Solder has not faced a lethal duo like Justin and Aldon Smith yet in his young career. They're a lethal duo with 24 sacks and 50 QB hurries between the two of them, and the majority of the time they're going to be on Solder's side of the line.
Not to mention Solder faced Aldon Smith in college and surrendered four sacks to him.
It's unfortunate that Rob Gronkowski is not available for this game because his size and versatility would present real problems for Aldon Smith both in pass coverage and blocking, but instead the Patriots will have to worry more just about blocking him with Daniel Fells.
Justin Smith is one of the most powerful bull-rushers in the NFL, an area where Solder has struggled with occasionally in the past. Logan Mankins should be able to help and counter some of Smith's toughness, but Solder will need be aware and work in conjunction with his tight end to help get both the Smiths blocked.
It's pretty obvious, Aldon Smith has 19.5 of San Francisco's 32 sacks. Neutralize him and you'll stop a significant portion of its ability to pressure.
There aren't many weak links in the 49ers defense but Donte Whitner in coverage is one. ProFootballFocus has him ranked as the worst in pass coverage of any 49er with a minus-4.5 rating.
Perhaps the best news is that as a strong safety, Whitner is right in the firing line of where the Patriots like to throw the most, close to the line of scrimmage. And with Aaron Hernandez looking like he's finally back to full health, he might be the key piece to attacking Whitner.
No team is better than the Patriots at finding ways to create the matchups that are most favorable to them.
The 49ers secondary is big and physical, and somewhat reminiscent of the Seahawks defense who made some plays against the Patriots. New England has been known to struggle at times with teams that are able to hit and play tough at the line of scrimmage.
This will be a prime opportunity to break that stereotype, especially underneath with the quicker receivers like Welker, Hernandez and even Danny Woodhead out of the backfield.
When facing a a great run defense with equally great pass-rushers there's only one answer—go with the spread passing attack and tear them apart with quick underneath throws. The Patriots are at home, so crowd noise and establishing a rhythm should not be a problem. They must use this to their advantage.
Sure, the 49ers look great when they're facing a conventional offense that tries to run on them to establish play action and only go into passing mode in long yardage.
But how will they look when the Patriots offense puts the pedal down and starts with their blitzkreig attack?
Can they maintain the physicality when they barely have time to line up?
This is what the Patriots are going to want to find out. They'll still pick their spots with the no huddle, but you've got the best quarterback in the game, and there's no question the Patriots are at their best when they're going fast and picking on their most favorable matchups.
Fight the 49ers' strength with the Patriots' strength, and let the chips fall where they may.
There are some weeks where getting the lead and dictating the style of game are more important than others and this is one of those weeks. The 49ers want this to be a close, drag it out street brawl, and if they don't have to worry about overcoming a deficit, all options are available to their diverse offense.
It was the same case last week with the Texans and we all saw the effect a 21-0 hole had on their offense.
What the 49ers don't want to have to do is have to throw the ball to catch up to the Patriots. That doesn't play to their strengths at all, especially with their potent running game.
If the Patriots are able to get out to a fast start, it will immediately put the 49ers' backs against the walls and take them out of what they do best and that's a hallmark of Bill Belichick. It might even be enough of a impetus for Belichick not to defer if he wins the opening coin toss.
If you're a big fan of Keys to Victory articles, then chances are you've seen this key for the Patriots. Yes, Colin Kaepernick is athletic and runs like an antelope when outside of the pocket, so of course it makes sense for the Patriots to force him to beat them with his arm.
I wouldn't even be surprised to see more of a 3-4 defense like the Patriots used last year against the Broncos in an effort to keep Kaepernick contained. Regardless, it will come down to the edge players for the Patriots: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott and even Dont'a Hightower, who must play disciplined football in trying to contain Kaepernick.
But it's a lot easier said than done.
Perhaps most important is that the Pats defense play with patience and vision, especially when it comes to the 49ers' Diamond and Pistol formations. Patriots fans do not need flashbacks to the Wildcat coming out party of 2008 in this one, and the 49ers run this similar attack extremely well.
The Patriots defense will have to play their smartest and most disciplined game of the year. If they're able to win the physical battle upfront, the rest of their game plan should fall into place.
One of the 49ers' most effective passing plays is slipping Frank Gore into the flat giving Kaepernick an easy throw that gets one of their most potent weapons in space with room to run. The Patriots have also been susceptible to running back receptions this year, where Football Outsiders has them ranked 22nd against running backs as receivers.
Mayo has been elevating his game in recent weeks, especially rushing the quarterback but this could be the week to keep Mayo reigned in and in coverage on Gore. These short passes have often been a saving grace for Kaepernick, so this would fit in well with taking away what he does best.
However, it will be tempting for Mayo to rush Kaepernick when he sees a lane. If the Patriots want to continue to send their linebackers after Kaepernick, they must have a contingency plan for Gore or LaMichael James when they come out of the backfield.
The 49ers run game has been most dangerous behind their center and left guard where they're averaging over six yards per carry, so this seems like a perfect place to put Vince Wilfork to disrupt things. However, the Patriots might have other issues to overcome in fighting the 49ers powerful run game, that go beyond Wilfork.
Brandon Spikes is battling an ankle injury that has limited his effectiveness in recent weeks, and not having your most physical linebacker who can single-handedly blow up a running game at 100 percent is a setback. Spikes missed practice on Wednesday but was back Thursday, though on a bike for the start of practice.
If Spikes is out, it will put even more pressure on Wilfork, who just had his best game of the season against the Texans. Against the second-ranked 49ers rushing offense, Wilfork has a chance to make a statement in the defensive MVP conversation.
For the Patriots, it's all about winning the physical battle up front against the 49ers and that begins with Wilfork—the tone-setter for the defense.
The 49ers have been most successful this season throwing to the middle of the field, the exact spot where the Patriots have struggled most this season to defend. When passing between 10-19 yards in the middle the 49ers have a team-high 4.4 rating from Pro Football Focus.
Though Vernon Davis has only been targeted 18 times in the five games since Kaepernick took over, San Francisco should take steps to target a Patriots defense that ranks 31st in covering tight ends, giving up over 70 yards per game.
Making them even more of a target is Brandon Spikes' bum ankle, which has limited in coverage even more than he usually is.
When you add up all these factors the 49ers' best bet will be to attack the middle of the field with Davis.
The Patriots should counter with Tavon Wilson, who has the size and tackling ability to compete with Davis. Kaepernick will make his share of throws outside to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, but the game will be won or lost in the middle of the field.
Talk about a group of player that are all connected. In 2007, the 49ers traded with the Patriots to get into the first round to get Joe Staley. The Patriots then traded the fourth-rounder they picked up to get Randy Moss, and used the first-rounder they received for 2008 to select Jerod Mayo. All three players have made dynamic impacts, but right now there are few left tackles better than Staley.
His brute strength is truly cause for concern, leaving the Patriots to decide who will hold up better, especially in the run game, Chandler Jones who's still getting back to full speed after and ankle injury, or Rob Ninkovich.
My bet is Ninkovich. He can match Staley's toughness, and since he won't have to worry as much about pass rush, he can simply worry more about holding his ground. This should be one of the most interesting matchups to watch all day.
The edges on the line and middle flat are the two key areas of concern for New England defensively. Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib will make and give up their share of plays, but for the Patriots to stop the 49ers offense they must hold their ground, not be fooled by misdirection out of the Pistol formation, and take away the short passes to Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
If they do those few things, they should buy enough cushion for Tom Brady and the offense to pull away.