Welcome to Season 9, Episode 6 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup.
Imagine the buzz this game would have if it had been played in the middle of last season rather than this one. Tom Brady versus the understudy he outlasted in New England, Jimmy Garoppolo. A pair of ferocious defenses. An anticipated matchup that might have looked like a Super Bowl preview at the time. And lots of reminders for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan of the 28-3 lead he mismanaged and helped blow as the Falcons' offensive coordinator in Super Bowl LI.
I suppose that last item still has come up a time or two this past week. But circumstances sure have changed for both teams over the last few months, and even weeks. The reigning NFC champion 49ers entered this season as one of the favorites to reach Super Bowl LV in Tampa but endured an early cruel rash of injuries that included the loss of defensive linemen Nick Bosa, an All-Pro, and Solomon Thomas for the season.
Garoppolo missed two games with a high ankle sprain and has been erratic enough that there was some talk his job was in jeopardy after an ugly 43-17 loss to the Dolphins in Week 5. But Garoppolo bounced back to throw three touchdown passes last week against the Rams, proving that this 49ers team is nothing if not resilient.
At 3-3, this is a big one for the 49ers. It’s bigger still for the 2-3 Patriots, who delivered a rare start-to-finish clunker on offense in an 18-12 loss to the Broncos last Sunday. There were valid reasons for the Patriots' struggles — most notably a COVID-19 outbreak that affected, among others, quarterback Cam Newton and sent their practice schedule into chaos — but it was still jarring to see them lose one of the few games that looked like a surefire win. There will be no looking past the 49ers. This is the most important game of the season so far.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching
David Andrews: Co-offensive line coaches Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich did remarkable work piecing together a functional unit after Andrews, the fulcrum of the line, broke his thumb in Week 2 against the Seahawks.
In Week 3, with Joe Thuney moving from left guard to center, the Patriots ran for 250 yards in a win over the Raiders. The following week, with Thuney moving back to guard and James Ferentz starting at center, the Patriots plowed their way to 185 rushing yards even without Newton.
But in the loss to the Broncos, the line stopped being a wall and hit one, reaching its injury tipping point. With Ferentz on the COVID-reserve list along with right guard Shaq Mason, and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor having to leave the game, Thuney moved to center, left tackle Isaiah Wynn shifted to left guard (where he struggled mightily), rookies Justin Herron and Michael Onwenu played every snap while shifting around, and second-year reserve Hjalte Froholdt saw 45 snaps (his first on offense of his career) at guard.
The Patriots ran for just 117 yards — 76 by Newton — and were leaky in their pass blocking, too.
Andrews, who returned to practice Wednesday, is a terrific center, but more important, he allows all of the pieces to fit back in their proper places.
N’Keal Harry: In the aftermath of the Broncos loss, the debate raged among Patriots observers whether the bigger issue with the passing game was Newton’s erratic performance or the lack of weapons at the skill positions. As much as Newton struggled with … actually, just about everything against the Broncos, I came down on the side of the Patriots offense being a Weapons-Free Zone.
Damiere Byrd and Ryan Izzo were the leading receivers in the non-James White category, each with three catches for 38 yards. In an ideal world, Byrd is a fourth receiver and Izzo is fighting to stay off the inactive list.
Harry, meanwhile, played 51 snaps with two targets and no catches, which is unacceptable. He is undoubtedly erratic, and there are probably a half-dozen receivers who went after him in the 2019 draft that Patriots fans would prefer right now (including the 49ers' shovel-pass-hoarding Deebo Samuel), but he also has tools.
Harry is 6 feet 4 inches, weighs 225 pounds, and runs with a vengeance after the catch. It’s absurd that he plays so much without touching the ball. This would be a fine week for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to cook up creative ways to get the ball in his hands.
Jerick McKinnon: The 49ers' run game isn’t exactly reminiscent of Roger Craig’s heyday, but the Patriots just gave up 101 yards to Phillip Lindsay coming off an ankle injury, so this is no time to take anyone lightly.
McKinnon, a capable dual threat who had 97 total yards on 21 touches in Week 4 against the Eagles, should get plenty of opportunities in the absence of the injured Raheem Mostert.
Grievance of the Week
The Patriots Hall of Fame announced its All-Dynasty team Thursday, which I’m taking not as an admission that they believe the good times have reached their endpoint, but as a humblebrag about their dominance and longevity that maybe only the 1980s and ’90s 49ers could match.
My grievance is not that this team, which included fan voting and “experts” input, was put together — it’s a heck of a way to counter the “Belichick is a bad GM” nonsense — but that they copped out (probably to avoid hurt feelings) on a couple of different fronts.
As colleague Ben Volin pointed out, the selections were not limited to 11 offensive players, 11 defensive players, plus specialists — you know, an actual team, with some hard decisions on whom to leave in and whom to leave out — but instead included 18 offensive players and 15 defensive players, plus eight specialists (Julian Edelman doubled up as a selection at receiver and punt returner) and eight more honorable mentions, for a total of 49 players. Not much rhyme or reason to that.
And yet in the attempt to put together an exclusive team without being especially exclusive, some essential Patriots were overlooked, most notably Deion Branch, who in Super Bowl XXXVIII had 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown, then followed the next year with 11 catches for 133 yards and the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP award. I’m in the minority here, but I’d have had him on the Dynasty roster before Wes Welker, who is one of four selections never to win a Super Bowl in New England. Sweet problem to bicker about, huh?
49ers tight end George Kittle vs. Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson
C’mon, Kirk Ferentz, you couldn’t have done your old boss and buddy Belichick a solid? You couldn’t have picked up the phone and given him a heads-up that your often-injured tight end at Iowa, projected to go in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, was a talented sleeper who would have been a fine understudy/complement to Rob Gronkowski? Did Urban Meyer and Nick Saban tie up the Friends of Bill tip line before the draft that year?
Ah well, missing out on Kittle — who went in the fifth round to the 49ers, with the 146th pick in the ’17 draft — is a lament for another day. Today’s issue is to figure out how to slow the multiskilled focal point of the 49ers offense.
Kittle has 30 receptions for 380 yards this season — second in both categories among tight ends — despite missing two games with a knee sprain. Last season, Kittle had 85 catches for 1,053 yards despite missing two games, and in 2018 he hauled in 88 receptions for 1,377 yards, the latter number breaking Gronkowski’s season record for a tight end.
Kittle also runs well after the catch and is a relentless blocker, leading Belichick to praise him effusively this past week. “He’s as good as anybody that I’ve coached or as good as anybody that we’ve played against,” said Belichick.
Kittle is not as good as peak Gronk, but he’s a close facsimile, and it will require multiple Patriots defenders to attempt to contain him. J.C. Jackson, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. has some recent experience defending tight ends, including the Raiders' Darren Waller in Week 3, and should get the primary assignment. Rookie Kyle Dugger has also been in the mix. Joejuan Williams saw action early this season in the role, but he didn’t play a defensive snap against the Broncos.
OR, REMEMBER WHEN ROBBIE GOULD WAS A 2005 PRESEASON PATRIOT?
Was it just a month ago that there was so much chatter about how the Patriots should do Newton a solid and either rip up his one-year, veteran minimum contract and sign him to an extension, pronto? That was understandably a popular topic after the encouraging loss to the Seahawks in Week 2, when he followed up a dazzling 75-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance in the Week 1 win over the Dolphins with a spectacular passing performance (30 of 44, 397 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) in the 35-30 loss at Seattle.
There hasn’t been quite as much talk about committing to Newton as the quarterback of the future lately. He was just OK (162 passing yards, 27 rushing yards) in the 36-20 win over the Raiders,then contracted COVID-19, missed the loss to the Chiefs, and looked like he needed to be recalibrated against Denver.
I suspect his performance in this game will bring an even louder referendum on whether he has a future in New England. Put me down as believing he’ll be ready for the challenge.
Newton’s accountability for his performance against the Broncos has been impressive, and we must acknowledge that the degree of difficulty he faced in preparing for that was underestimated at some addresses, including this one. Cue the Keep Cam talk, again.
Patriots 30, 49ers 20.