49ers vs. Patriots: 5 Key Defensive Matchups for San Francisco
New England has earned its league-leading standing by racking up 425.7 yards and 36.7 points per game and generally demoralizing any defense that stands in its way.
Equally jaw dropping, however, are the Patriots 27.6 first downs per game and rather absurd third-down conversion rate of 52 percent. These stats reveal the incredible quick-fire nature of their powerful offense.
And one that runs a play every 25 seconds—a league-best statistic highlighted on last week’s Monday Night Football telecast of the Patriots’ 42-point demolition of the Houston Texans’ sixth-ranked scoring defense.
(Please allow that initial mind-boggling number to soak in for a bit.)
San Francisco is at least fortunate that Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio rarely alternate personnel groupings because of the quality of their every-down players.
Even so, the 49ers defense must deal with the incredible pace at which Brady orchestrates this offense, as well as the particular matchup difficulties it brings to the gridiron.
On that note, let’s analyze the five key defensive matchups for San Francisco when it lines up against the Pats on their home turf.
5. ILB NaVorro Bowman vs. RB Danny Woodhead
This matchup pertains primarily to NaVorro Bowman handling Danny Woodhead in coverage.
Don’t get me wrong: he is an effective change-of-pace running back behind 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley in the New England ground attack. But we will address this later.
Woodhead poses a significant threat coming out of the backfield as a pass-catcher.
Bowman, the 49ers outstanding inside linebacker, most often has the task of covering running backs in the passing game. He’s performed well so far, recording the fourth-lowest completion percentage (62.7) and sixth-lowest efficiency rating (73.7) by opposing quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (membership required).
Woodhead, though, stands to subvert Bowman’s lock-down work in coverage with his shifty abilities in open space. The RB has 217 yards after the catch out of his 306 total yards receiving. With his smallish 5’8’’, 200-pound stature, he regularly bounces off initial contact and does the proverbial breaking of ankles against opposing linebackers.
Two receiving touchdowns and four 20-plus yard receptions attest to his open-field running abilities.
Woodhead will get the majority of touches by Patriots running backs in the passing game now that Julian Edelman is out for the season (foot). Shane Vereen is another dangerous back (one TD, 135 yards after the catch).
Bowman must neutralize the smallest, yet potentially most lethal weapon in Brady’s expansive arsenal. Doing so will require sure tackling in space and eliminating YAC production.
4. ILB Patrick Willis, SS Donte Whitner vs. TE Aaron Hernandez
No Gronk, no problem. Right?
Not so fast.
Even with the regularly unstoppable Rob Gronkowski unavailable for Sunday’s action, the 49ers must still deal with a big-time tight end in Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez ranks second on the Patriots with four receiving touchdowns. He showcased his vital contributions to this offense with eight catches and two scores against the formerly 11-1 Texans in primetime last week.
Like Woodhead, Hernandez is often a nightmare with the ball in his hands in the open field.
Charged primarily with covering this dynamic weapon is the 49ers Patrick Willis.
The NFL’s top-rated inside backer for the past five-plus years has earned the best grade from PFF with his unmatched performance in coverage this season. Supremely athletic and productive tight ends Jimmy Graham, Anthony Fasano and Kyle Rudolph, among others, were not factors with Willis on the field.
The only touchdown he’s allowed all season was a meaningless one to the Detroit Lions Brandon Pettigrew in Week 2 when the game was well out of reach.
Donte Whitner, for his part, must rely on more recent success and forget his early-season struggles against tight ends.
The strong safety must maintain coverage over the top and prevent the big play. He needs to match Willis’ production when he’s shifted over to Hernandez initially and in support on the back end.
By and large, the tight end is one of Brady’s favorite targets and one he utilizes with deadly results. Willis and Whitner must remain in top-notch form by reading Brady’s eyes and closing in on Hernandez when he’s the intended target.
These hard-hitting 49er defenders relish these opportunities against the best of the best. San Francisco hopes that their pregame delight transforms into positive in-game results.
3. 49ers Front Seven vs. Patriots Rushing Offense
Shocking as it may be, the Patriots run nearly as much as they pass (38 passing to 33 rushing attempts).
Therefore, the 49ers need to prepare just as thoroughly for the run game as they do for Brady’s prolific passing offense.
It is true that San Francisco owns one of the NFL’s elite, if not most dominant, rushing defenses in the NFL. This goes without saying.
However, there have been instances where big-bodied power backs have enjoyed a serious advantage over the S.F. front seven. Steven Jackson (6’2’’, 240 pounds), Marshawn Lynch (5’11’’, 215 pounds) and Ahmad Bradshaw (5’10’’, 214 pounds) have each rushed for over 100 yards against the 49ers D.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was a liability against these rushers every time San Francisco used its base 3-4 personnel (albeit being less than half the total snaps of any game). After a fantastic year in 2011, Soap now finds himself earning negative grades by PFF in run defense (six of 12 games to be sure).
OLB Ahmad Brooks has also performed inadequately against two of those backs.
And even the great Willis and Bowman found themselves being bullied by Jackson during their first matchup with the Rams. It seems that only defensive lineman Justin Smith remains beyond reproach on a weekly basis against the run.
The RB bully looking to assert himself this week against the 49ers is Stevan Ridley. The 5’11’’, 220-pound masher leads New England with 1,082 yards and ranks second in the entire league with 10 rushing touchdowns.
San Francisco cannot succumb to Ridley’s bruising nature, including when the Patriots use him in sneak-attack draw plays when the defense is geared for the pass. Willis, Bowman and the rest of the bunch must play downhill, hard-hitting defense and finish tackles at the first opportunity.
At the same time, they must maintain discipline, cover sideline to sideline and not overpursue when Woodhead comes onto the field (free safety Dashon Goldson is on notice as well). His elusiveness is a perfect complement to Ridley’s power-rushing style, as he often weasels his way between would-be tacklers with his 5’8’’ frame.
The 49ers must fulfill the role of gridiron bully against the Patriots' rushing attack. They must play harder, tougher and nastier football—their brand of football—all while being the smarter bullies on the block.
2. CB Carlos Rogers vs. WR Wes Welker
Cornerback Carlos Rogers and speedy slot receivers do not go hand in hand if you’re a 49ers fan.
Victor Cruz, Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb are all speedsters who have had a serious advantage over Rogers this season. The receiver who put his deficiencies in the most tangible perspective, however, was Danny Amendola.
The Rams wideout torched Rogers by catching all six passes thrown his way against the 49ers CB during their Week 10 matchup. It would have been far worse had the refs not called off a huge pass play (due to an unrelated penalty) in overtime that essentially went the length of the field. Amendola set up a game-winning drive by absolutely dismantling Rogers at the worst possible moment.
Highlighting Rogers’ poor performance is not intended as a smear job. Rather, we bring it up because of the striking similarities between Amendola and the Patriots’ leading receiver Wes Welker.
The former is 5’11’’ and 188 pounds while Welker is 5’9’’, 185 pounds. Both are small-stature possession receivers with great quickness who operate very well out of the slot.
That said, Welker is more productive. He possesses a superior overall skill set, is a better route runner and has developed an incomparable rapport with Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Look no further than his soon to be fifth 100-catch season in the past six years with Brady slinging him the ball.
This is what the outmatched Rogers is up against as the 49ers’ purported No. 1 corner squares off with the Patriots’ unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver.
Rogers must implore his linebacker brethren to knock Welker off his spot when he runs crossing routes and quick slants. They must help disrupt the rhythm between Welker and Brady and give Rogers every possible advantage.
No. 22, meanwhile, has to play smart football by not falling for double-moves and by keeping Welker in front of him at all times. He’ll get his catches throughout the game, but Rogers must limit them to short gains and eliminate any backbreaking third-down conversions.
If neutralizing Welker means rotating Tarell Brown or Chris Culliver over to the New England WR, then so be it. He cannot be the guy to beat the 49ers.
Still, Rogers might look to embody the role of a true No. 1 and allow his fellow corners to handle their own necessary duties against Brady and Co.
1. 49ers Pass-Rushers vs. Patriots Offensive Line
The one thing that has reduced Brady’s success over the years is a dominant and consistent pass rush. While it applies to most quarterbacks, collapsing the pocket, taking Brady off his spot and knocking him to the ground is the formula for overcoming his deadly effectiveness.
Luckily for Brady, he has the luxury of a stout pass-blocking corps in front of him. The Patriots rank No. 5 overall with just 20 sacks allowed on the season.
(For perspective, San Francisco has given up nearly double that total with 38.)
Worse yet for the 49ers pass-rushers, the actual offensive line has only surrendered 17 sacks. Backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and Brady himself are responsible for the remaining three, according to PFF.
This unit is certainly impenetrable at times. But that doesn’t mean it is without weaknesses.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has surrendered four sacks, while blind-side protector Nate Solder has given up three and 30 additional QB pressures. Yet, where Brady is most vulnerable is up the middle, where center Ryan Wendell has allowed a team-high five sacks.
Matchup-wise, Justin Smith must occupy Solder so Aldon Smith can utilize his patented stunt move to the inside. J. Smith can also put pressure on Brady by breaking down the middle of the Patriots’ O-line by himself. Aldon could then follow suit by speed- and/or bull-rushing the left tackle in a multi-directional attack.
We’ve also seen Aldon line up over right tackle to present a different look, with each Smith completely devouring opposite sides of the line en route to the quarterback.
And in case Fangio wants to implement an occasional blitz or two, both Willis and Bowman are equipped to power through the middle of the offensive front. Brooks, for his part, could break off from coverage as an additional rusher and pursue Brady from the right if he gets safety help or if fellow linebackers rotate over.
At the end of the day, however, the 49ers coaching staff will not make the same mistake as Houston by allowing Brady to dissect man coverage across the board. It will rely on generating pressure from four or fewer pass-rushers as it has done all year.
But what has been used all year must be at its most effective against the Patriots. Brady is simply too good without a constant disruptive pass rush in his face.
For the 49ers to emerge victorious on Sunday, it’s got to get real nasty in the trenches.
And real nasty for one Tom Brady.
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