|Aldon Smith Will be determined to force his way into Tom Brady's face tonight|
After dismantling the defense of the Houston Texans, with about the same level of strain as it takes for Bill Belichick to cut the sleeves off of his hoodies, the New England Patriots face another test that at the very least appears tough on paper. The San Francisco 49ers are first in the NFC West with a 9-3-1 record so far this season. They are second in the seeding for the NFC playoffs and rank first in points allowed on defense, second in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Even though they had one of the best records in the league at the time, with a quarterback, Alex Smith, who was playing good football before being concussed, the 49ers' have a head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who was willing to change his starter to who he perceived to be hot-handed quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. They also visit Foxboro tonight.
Despite how hyped every single football fan in Boston will feel after Monday's dominant display that led to a 42-14 victory over a team perceived as being one of the best in the league, the Patriots can't overlook the 49ers or they face the prospect of being on the wrong side of a similar scoreline. While it's easy to play when you're winning, the fact that the Patriots face one of the most physically intimidating teams in the whole league on a short week of work and recovery cannot be overlooked. The Patriots executed perfectly against the Texans and noted that they took advantage of having the extra day to prepare for the game, that extra day now falls to the 49ers who are coming off of a victory at home over the Miami Dolphins from Sunday.
Despite his lack of experience compared to Alex Smith or even Matt Schaub, Jim Harbaugh has put his coaching future in the hands of Colin Kaepernick for this type of game. Kaepernick is an explosive athlete who has had his ups and downs so far since being named the starter, but his ability to pick apart a defense with his arm or make big plays with his feet at any given time are unquestioned. Having him under center offers the 49ers the dynamism and downfield ability that the Texans lacked last week. The 49ers were comfortably steamrolling lesser teams with Alex Smith at the helm of the offense, but in a game such as this one, when they can't expect to dominate defensively, they will need the young quarterback to put points on the board.
From the Patriots' point of view, that isn't as desirable as one would presume. This season they have faced just two quarterbacks who could be compared to Kaepernick in style of play, and both of those games came very early in the season. The first was all the way back on opening night, when the Patriots shut down a Tennessee Titans' offense led by Jake Locker. Locker isn't exactly like Kaepernick, but both are mobile players who can throw the ball down the field effectively. Along with Locker, the Patriots' only other opposing quarterback who was similar to Kaepernick was Russell Wilson. Wilson gutted a different group of defenders on that day for three touchdowns including a game winner to Sidney Rice deep down the field.
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The 49ers don't have exceptional deep threats on the outside, but their size combined with their athleticism will make it very difficult for the Patriots' secondary to cover. Randy Moss has received most of the media attention, but the coverage won't be swinging his direction at this point in his career. Instead the Patriots' cornerbacks will need to contend with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Manningham is a big play threat on every snap, but it is Crabtree who offers the consistency that will allow the 49ers to move the chains. Last week he caught nine passes for 93 yards including a long of 25. Even though he has been underused for much of the season as a receiver, tight end Vernon Davis can't be overlooked. The Patriots' linebackers are not great in coverage, while none of their safeties, outside of the benched Patrick Chung, have the physical tools to stick with Davis in coverage. He should prove to be an x-factor on that side of the ball.
Against the Texans, the Patriots keyed their offense off of JJ Watt on the defensive line to run their offense and by proxy the scoreboard. The 49ers have a similar threat in Justin Smith at 3-4 defensive end, but Smith's supporting cast is significantly better upfront than Watt's. If the Patriots continually run away from Smith, they will be running into the outstanding combination of Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks. Brooks and McDonald don't receive much recognition from anyone, but both are very physical, aggressive and talented football players who have no real vulnerabilities. Furthermore, unlike Watt, Smith has patented the ability to slide through a defensive line from one side to take away a running play going the opposite direction.
Dealing with the 49ers' front seven will be key for the Patriots' chances of winning this game. The 49ers likely will play a lot of nickel to counteract Brady's passing ability, but that won't give the offense an advantage running the ball because of the sheer quantity of quality upfront. Along with Smith, McDonald and Brooks, who will all remain in on nickel formations, the 49ers' front six will compromise of Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Willis and Bowman are dominant inside linebackers who don't sacrifice any coverage ability, and while Smith isn't a dominant all around player, he is good enough to get by against the run in this situation with this supporting cast. When the Patriots try to pass the ball, that is when Aldon Smith will come to life.
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Aldon has 19.5 sacks on the season and has only been kept from the quarterback completely three times in 13 games, against the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. The assignment of holding Aldon at bay will be handled by a fellow first round pick from 2011, Nate Solder. Solder has had a good season for the Patriots dealing with many difficult assignments, but this particular pass-rusher is a physical specimen who seemingly has no equal this season. Much of Aldon's success comes from the work of Justin, which makes it almost impossible for any team to double up on either of them. Becoming too focused on the left side of the offense would expose the rest of Dante Scarrnechia's line to the abilities of McDonald and Brooks.
If the Patriots can contain the 49ers' pass rush, then they should be able to have some success attacking the team's safeties over the middle of the field. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are tough tackling safeties who excel against opposing tight ends and in zone coverage, however when matched up against a shifty receiver like Wes Welker or speedy tight end like Aaron Hernandez they should be found out. If the 49ers are to win this game, or even just contain the Patriots' offense, they will need to rely on their defensive front to do so.
Having dominated the Houston Texans, the San Francisco 49ers will be more determined than ever to make a statement against the Patriots on their own turf. In order to prevent that from happening, the Patriots need to match the 49ers' physicality more so than outwit them with their gameplanning. They passed their biggest test of the season last week, but just like interceptions from Ryan Fitzpatrick, as soon as the first one has happened a second is sure to follow.