The San Francisco 49ers got back to their winning ways last week as they defeated the Miami Dolphins 27-13. The New England Patriots dominated one of the best teams in the NFL, the Houston Texans, 43-12. The 49ers travel to New England to take on the Patriots in what could be a Super Bowl preview. Can the 49ers win in this tough environment or will the Patriots put up another performance like last week?
The 49ers will be led by second year quarterback Colin Kapernick. Ever since taking over for Alex Smith, the young quarterback has added a little more explosiveness to the offense. This week, he will surely be tested on his quarterback acumen by the expertise of New England head coach Bill Belichick. The mastermind of defense has been giving opposing quarterback fits for years. In order for Kapernick to be successful, he must be smart with the football. When Kapernick gets chances to make plays to receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis, he must make those happen. But he also cannot force the action if it is not there. In these instances, Kapernick must use his feet to put pressure on the defense.
Frank Gore is also another key component to this offense. In last week’s game versus the Texans, the Patriots had a couple plays where they were gashed by Foster and the Texans on the ground. The 49ers are arguably just as physical a running team as the Texans are, so expect them to run right at the Patriots from the many different formations that they can throw at defenses. Another way that the 49ers can hurt the Patriots is with the read option. If Kapernick can make the proper read, then there could be huge gains to be had by them.
For the Patriots, they have a tough task on their hands. Not as much for the explosiveness of the 49ers offense, but for the many different formations and packages that they can throw at you. Even with all those formations, it still comes down to the big men in the middle of the Patriots defensive line. If the combination of defensive tackles Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork can stop the running game of the 49ers, that will put the game on the shoulders of Kapernick and that is not what the 49ers want. The more Kapernick has to drop back and pass, the more the advantage goes to cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alphonso Dennard. These two guys have been ball hawks for the Patriots recently and they can make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
The Patriots offense begins and ends with their star quarterback, Tom Brady. The veteran out of Michigan has been dissecting defenses for years and this year is not an exception. He has led the Patriots to the top of most offensive statistics, including points scored. In this game, he could potentially have his star tight end, Rob Gronkowski, come back for this game from his broken forearm. If Gronk is back, he could cause some serious problems for the 49ers defense because of his size and speed. But he isn’t the only guy that can give the 49ers problems. New England’s other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is very versatile and can line up in multiple positions, including in the slot and at an H-back position. And like Gronk, he has excellent speed for his size.
The Patriots are good through the air, but the added dimension this year is their running game. The trio of Stevan RIdley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead have been taking over games at time for New England. If the Patriots come out and are able to establish at least one of these three, then expect them to have the 49ers defense on their heels. But even if they are not as effective running the football, the Patriots cannot abandon the running game. Because if they do, they will allow the 49ers to rush the passer more predictably.
For the 49ers defense, they have given up the least points in the NFL this year. One of the keys of their defense is stopping the run. If the 49ers are able to stall the Patriots on the ground, they will take away one of the Pats weapons. And if that happens and the Patriots have to drop back and pass a lot, look for second year outside linebacker Aldon Smith to make an appearance. Smith leads the NFL in sacks(19.5 ) and has been a handful for opposing offenses. Expect him and Justin Smith to give the Patriots offensive line issues all day long. And, like any quarterback, pressure is their enemy. Look for the 49ers to bring heat up the middle of the field with linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis occasionally to get Brady off his spot in the pocket. One thing to watch for is who the 49ers cover Hernandez and Gronkowski(if he plays) with. It could be Bowman or Willis or they could run some zone against these two threats as well.
As for how this game goes, I expect the Patriots to try and loosen up the 49ers with the running game early. And for the 49ers, I expect them to do the same. If all comes down to who can make the most plays and with the pressure that Brady could be under from the 49ers defense due to his offensive line, those plays could be few and far between.
Prediction: San Francisco 26, New Engand 24