When the Patriots run
It’ll be all hands on deck as New England tries to pound the ball against the NFL’s best front seven — in what is expected to be weather where pounding the ball is preferred. Stevan Ridley has shown he has the muscle and speed to attack physical defenses. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is an enthusiastic runner who combines quickness and power to slip through creases and dent defenses. Shane Vereen has a nice first step and surprising power for a 5-9, 205-pounder. Vereen is an excellent athlete (he lines up everywhere) and has good vision. Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200) is a terrific change-of-pace back with great instincts, vision, and quickness. He runs low and can be hard to locate. The wild card could be Brandon Bolden. The 5-11, 220-pound rookie has shown good inside vision and power. He will lower his shoulder and deliver a blow. The Patriots’ underrated offensive line will be challenged to get off their initial blocks and get their hands on the linebackers. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (6-2, 330) has great strength and is nearly impossible to move — clogging lanes is a specialty. Inside ’backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are pretty much the best in the business. Willis (6-1, 240) is an intense, athletic, and physical playmaker. He deciphers plays quickly, flies to the ball, and inflicts pain. He’s special. Bowman (6 feet, 242) has exceptional instincts and range, and is virtually unblockable.
When the Patriots pass
Less than a week after making a pretty good Texans’ pass rush look pedestrian, Tom Brady and the big uglies charged with watching his back (and front) face their biggest challenge of the season. Towering twin tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will need help keeping outside linebackers Aldon Smith (19½ sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (5½ sacks, 40 pressures), and end Justin Smith (52 quarterback hits) out of Brady’s face. Look for the tight ends (particularly Daniel Fells) and the running backs to provide chip blocks. A lot of them. Brady is exceptional against the blitz, finding his targets (and mismatches) quickly. Wes Welker is the object of many of the quick hits. Versatile and athletic tight end Aaron Hernandez is smart, strong, and swift. Brandon Lloyd has the speed to stretch the field and the body control to make acrobatic catches. If the forecast holds up, the long ball will be hard to hit on, so look for Lloyd to stay on medium sideline routes. Deion Branch is back and provides Brady with a versatile, veteran option. All of the backs are decent receivers and will be employed on screens to help counter the pass rush. Niners cornerbacks Carlos Rogers (he’s athletic) and Tarell Brown (he’s quick) are adequate. Safeties Donte Whitner (he’s strong and fast) and Dashon Goldson (he’s big and athletic) are rangy ballhawks and provide excellent support in the passing and running games.
When the 49ers run
Frank Gore is a beast. The 5-9, 217-pound tailback (more like a mini-fullback) is a compact, muscular runner with exceptional vision and first-step quickness. He lets his blockers do their jobs and then explodes through inside creases onto the second and third levels. Gore rarely goes down on first contact, will outrun linebackers, and can steamroll defensive backs. He has great open-field acceleration and is faster than he looks. Gore is often nicked up, but he fights through injuries and is incredibly consistent — he’s averaged 4.6 yards per tote over eight seasons. Rookie LaMichael James recently moved up the depth chart. The 5-8, 194-pound speedster is a home run threat who won’t be caught from behind. The 49ers have a big and physical front, led by center Jonathan Goodwin (he’s aggressive and agile), left guard Mike Iupati (he’s gigantic and powerful), and right guard Alex Boone (he’s athletic and smart). Vince Wilfork spearheads the run defense and who would you rather have? Massive, nimble, and smart, Wilfork is equally good at redirecting blockers to create space for the linebackers or simply flattening them. Tackles Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick feed off Wilfork’s play. Jerod Mayo leads the instinctive and hard-hitting linebacking corps. Mayo has great lateral quickness and smarts. Brandon Spikes is a big hitter and rookie Dont’a Hightower continues to improve.
When the 49ers pass
Colin Kaepernick has taken over the reins and he is not your prototypical 6-4, 230-pound quarterback. Kaepernick is clearly more comfortable in the shotgun — the second-year man played almost exclusively out of the Pistol at Nevada. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws. He is still raw, however, and hasn’t had a lot of experience reading NFL coverages. He is quick to pull the ball down and take off — and that’s not always a bad thing. Kaepernick is an excellent improviser and runner. Kaepernick is an upright runner, and if he doesn’t hit the deck in a timely manner he will take some shots. Pressuring — and containing — Kaepernick won’t be easy. Patriots ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones must maintain their edges. Michael Crabtree is an excellent receiver with strong hands and great speed. Crabtree has good body control and will adjust to poorly thrown balls and still make the catch. He can be very elusive after the catch. Tight end Vernon Davis is among the NFL’s elite. The 6-3, 250-pound target is a phenomenal athlete with soft hands and deceptive speed. Davis has a nice burst off the line (blocking is not his thing) and he gets open quickly. Gang tackling is a must with this guy. New England’s secondary continues to improve. Devin McCourty has settled in at safety and his skills and leadership are obvious. Kyle Arrington was born to cover the slot.
49ers’ key player: Aldon Smith
In just his second season, the 6-4, 258-pound linebacker already is among the league’s elite pass rushers. A defensive end in college, Smith comes off the edge like a whirling dervish and overwhelms blockers with speed and power.
How he beats you: With explosiveness. Smith is exceptionally quick off the snap and will collapse the pocket in a flash. If he catches a blocker flatfooted, start praying for the quarterback.
How to shut him down: With extra attention. Smith simply doesn’t lose one-on-one battles. So extra blockers will be the order of the day. Running away from him is another good option.
49ERS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Slow motion: It’s mind-boggling how often Wes Welker gets a clean break. The Niners need to knock him off his route early to disrupt Tom Brady’s timing.
2. Be Frank: San Francisco’s offense has long gone through Frank Gore. Keep it that way. Let him bang away on the defense before going for the big play.
3. Up the gut: Pressuring Brady off the edge is playing with fire because he is master of the short game. Coming up the middle is more effective.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. I spy: Assign a body to Colin Kaepernick to prevent him from getting outside the pocket and turning broken plays — and sure losses — into big plays.
2. Gather Moss: Randy Moss isn’t the destructive force he once was, but he still has skills and will be highly motivated. Ignoring him is a mistake.
3. No return policy: Ted Ginn Jr. and LaMichael James are electrifying return men. Matthew Slater and his friends in red, white, and blue must pay special attention.