Starting right tackle Jonas Jennings has been ruled out for his third straight game with a shoulder injury, meaning 49ers starting left tackle Joe Staley and backup right tackle Barry Sims will again anchor an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 19 sacks.
"We don't want to give up sacks anytime. We want to have games like Detroit, where they get one sack for one yard [loss] or no sacks. We don't want to give up any sacks at all," said Staley. "We have got to do what we got to do up front and the running backs got to pick up the blitzes and the tight ends have to do a good job too and the receivers get open downfield, we're going to pick up those chunks of yards. We have to do a better job of that, because 19 sacks are unacceptable."
On top of the six sacks in New Orleans, the Saints defense was officially credited with an additional seven hurries, although quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan seemed to be in trouble on most every pass play. Fortunately, many times throughout the game he was able to get the ball out of his hands to his hot reads.
"That's something we do have installed in this offense, and it's what makes it difficult and hard to pick up on at first," said receiver Arnaz Battle who made several quick catches last week in New Orleans. "I do feel now like the quarterback, receivers and backs are on the same page as far as our hot reads and handling the blitz on the outside. It's about understanding what the quarterback is thinking and being on the same page, and how to handle that pressure. You've got to be assignment correct so that you can go out and play fast."
But offensive coordinator Mike Martz also wants to get his fast players downfield to stretch defenses vertically. O'Sullivan is currently tied in the NFL for third with 16 or more pass plays over 20 yards, and to keep on track with those high number of explosive plays, the line has the task of sustaining their blocks a few seconds longer.
"We have to do a better job of winning our one-on-one matchups and finishing our blocks," said Staley. "Sometimes in this offense the quarterback has to hold it and needs to go down field and get those big chunks. We have to do a better job of finishing our blocks and giving him all the time he needs. That falls on us, you know? It's a mindset."
Stretching out protection means defeating not just a defender's first move, but their second and possibly third. That's when some of the breakdowns for the 49ers offensive line have occurred.
"Our job is to block until the ball is gone. Sometimes it gets out quick and sometimes it doesn't," said Sims. "It doesn't change our responsibility. We have to keep them off of our quarterback. Sometimes it's harder [to do] than others."
Like this Sunday for instance, when the 49ers compete against their first true 3-4 defense of the season.
"The challenges against a 3-4, you're talking about defensive ends and nose tackles, usually a pretty stout nose tackle, and defensive ends who are usually larger guys, such as Richard Seymour. He has long arms and a big body. They're not only guys who can play a three-technique. They can play the five or the seven-technique out there too. Then you talk about speed, because you have linebackers who have a lot of speed. They have some older guys who run their system very well and they do a good job in pursuit as well as execution. We have to be operating on all cylinders this week."
O'Sullivan admits that a 3-4 defense can be confusing for a quarterback, and he plans to put in the time needed this week to get prepared for the Patriots' various fronts and coverages.
"Most quarterbacks would tell you that they don't love the three-four just because there's an extra guy standing up, but once you're around it, you understand the scheme and that it's football. They're trying to do certain things with their front, and we're trying to do stuff with our routes and protections," said O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan is already somewhat ready for the Patriots scheme after working against the 49ers hybrid 3-4 defense throughout training camp.
"You get a little more comfortable with it, but I think you'd rather see seven guys standing up than eight guys standing up," he said.
New England isn't known for being as fancy as the Pittsburgh Steelers 3-4, but they go into a game looking to exploit one on one battles in their favor. Running back Frank Gore expects to be targeted by New England's outside linebackers, and that's A-okay for the 49ers leading rusher.
"We saw it a lot from our own defense in training camp and we have to handle it the same way," said Gore. "You've got to study them and I know they are going to try to get their outside linebackers, like Mike Vrabel or Adalius Thomas matched up on me and the other backs. But, I feel like that's something I take a lot of pride in being able to defeat. I looked forward to it."
The 49ers best opportunity to eliminate some of the potential pressure is by getting Gore going forward in the run game. The Pro Bowl back is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, but after settling for three straight field goals in New Orleans and falling behind early, Gore found himself with limited opportunities to run the ball.
If the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, Gore could have the kind of day the Dolphins had two weeks ago against the Patriots when they amassed 216 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns.
"I'm like this – whatever you have to do to win. I know we are going to go out against them at first with the run, but if it takes the pass to win, that's what we'll do," said Gore. "I just want the win. We've got to play our ball and try to eliminate the mistakes."
O'Sullivan has a few of those mistakes to iron out this week after fumbling the ball and throwing two interceptions in the red zone against the Saints.
"I felt like we moved the ball, but to have a chance to win against a good team, you've got to score touchdowns and you can't turn the ball over," said O'Sullivan. "You can never turn the ball over in the red zone."
O'Sullivan has examined both of his interceptions, and understands what he needs to avoid a similar error on the picks, as well as his fumble.
"It's about when I escape out of the pocket, I need to go full speed until I feel like I'm away from those guys," said O'Sullivan. "I can't break the containment, throttle down and try to make a play downfield. I've got to try and get out. I need to make sure I'm safe first and then I can look my eyes down the field."
Given New England's talent and experience on defense, not every snap will run smoothly on Sunday no matter how well O'Sullivan and the 49ers offense execute, but Sims carries the right mindset needed to come out on top when the game clock eventually reads 00:00.
"Sometimes you get beat and sometimes it doesn't work out the way you planned it. You have to go back the next play and try to make it work," said Sims.
**Wednesday Practice Notes:
**Linebacker Manny Lawson did not practice and probably won't play this week, according to head coach Mike Nolan. Lawson exited Sunday's game against New Orleans with a hamstring injury.
In addition to Jennings, cornerback Shawntae Spencer has been ruled out after having surgery to repair a torn ACL. The 49ers are in no hurry to add Spencer to the injured reserve list since they don't have anyone they are interested in adding to the 53-man roster at this time.
Frank Gore also did not practice, per a routine established by the 49ers coaching staff. Gore will return to work on Thursday.