An upset 2-3 Patriots team is eager to reverse course on Sunday as New England hosts the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7. Meanwhile, the 49ers are looking to remain relevant among a stacked NFC West division. With both teams desperate for a Week 7 victory, here are six things to watch for in Sunday's matchup.
1. Jimmy G's Homecoming
Jimmy Garoppolo is set to make his first return to Gillette Stadium since being traded to the 49ers in Oct. of 2017. He spent three and a half seasons and made two starts in New England as the Patriots primary reserve behind Tom Brady.
Sunday marks his first opportunity to face off against his former team and head coach Bill Belichick. Garoppolo acknowledged that he owes much of his success to his time under the future Hall of Fame head coach. His experience under Belichick should optimistically come in handy against the defensive-minded coach who has proven effective in making things tough for opposing quarterbacks.
"He was just very honest," Garoppolo said. "Really never beat around the bush. He's very black and white with everything he did. That's kind of how I am. I really appreciate that from him. Whether it was my first day there or when I got traded, he always shot me straight. I think just when you're talking about man to man, that's all you could really ask for at the end of the day."
Added Belichick: "I think we all know Jimmy's a quality player and can do all the things that a good quarterback needs to do. He led the 49ers to the NFC Championship last year. We saw a little bit of him at the end of the year last year in preparation for this game and of course the 2020 games that he's played in. I don't think there's any question about his skill level and what he's been able to accomplish and what their team's been able to accomplish. We'll be ready for his best. I'm sure we'll get it. He does a lot of things well."
2. Encore Offensive Performance
After an abysmal performance in Week 5, the 49ers bounced back in their wire-to-wire victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Coming off of his worst performance in his seven-year NFL career, Garoppolo did a 180 in a game plan pioneered by Kyle Shanahan that featured short throws to create bigger plays downfield against the Rams. The quarterback was 23-of-33 passing for 268 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 124.3.
In addition to his short throws and quick release, San Francisco's offensive line was superb against a Rams pass rush who led the league in sacks heading into Week 6. The quarterback was relatively untouched, allowing just two pressures on 33 dropbacks.
Additionally, the Patriots are allowing opposing quarterbacks a 94.3 passer rating, ranked 17th in the league, to add to 8.1 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Garoppolo is averaging 9.0 yards per attempt. With a healthy receiving corps and Shanahan's ability to put Garoppolo in advantageous positions, can the 49ers put up an encore performance against New England's veteran defense?
3. 49ers Run Game Sans Mostert
After appearing in just 35 snaps against the Rams, Raheem Mostert is likely to miss some time after leaving the Week 6 matchup early with an ankle injury. The 49ers will look to Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson Jr. and undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty on Sunday with Tevin Coleman (knee) also missing significant time on Injured Reserve.
Still, Shanahan has gotten production out of his backs, even with Mostert out of the lineup earlier this year. This season, the 49ers are averaging a 10th-ranked 127.8 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry.
Last week against the Denver Broncos, running back Phillip Lindsay rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries (4.4 yards per carry) in their upset win over New England. San Francisco wasn't able to muster a consistent run game against the Rams, however, still managed 122 yards on 37 rushes. The 49ers will, yet again, have a revised cast, but should still be able to produce a consistent output.
4. 49ers Defense vs. Newton's Legs
The 49ers have struggled against mobile quarterbacks, notably allowing 92 and 49 yards to Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones, respectively. It's likely Belichick and Co. will aim to exploit San Francisco's woes.
Last week, Newton led the Patriots ground game with 10 rushes for 76 yards (7.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Through four games, the quarterback has registered 225 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Newton might not have the same speed from seasons' prior, but still poses a threat with his ability to take contact and extend drives.
5. Encore Defensive Performance
The 49ers may be without Richard Sherman for an extended period of time, but Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett's presence cannot be understated. The duo, in part, limited Jared Goff to under 200 passing yards in Week 5, his lowest output of the season.
Verrett did not allow a single reception last week against the Rams. He also notched two pass break ups to go along with an interception, his first since Week 1 of the 2016 season. Verrett has a passer rating allowed of just 7.0 this season, the lowest of any qualifying cornerback in the league and has not allowed a reception over nine yards all season.
San Francisco's passing defense has held opposing quarterbacks to 217 yards a game (ranked 5th), an 86.9 passer rating (9th) and an average of 6.7 yards per attempt (7th). Newton is coming off of a rough outing against the Broncos, completing 17 of his 25 passes for a mere 157 yards, two interceptions and zero touchdowns for a 51.6 passer rating. On the year, the quarterback has thrown two touchdown passes to four interceptions over his four starts this season.
Just once this season has New England thrown for over 175 yards. If the 49ers defensive backs can put up a repeat performance, they can help continue the Patriots substandard trend.
6. National Tight End Day
While every day is National Tight End Day, the newfound occasion is being recognized around the league in Week 7. Conceived (unwittingly) by Garoppolo and endorsed by George Kittle, National Tight End Day serves as an internal motivation for tight ends around the league to be a contributor, as a pass catcher, run blocker or as an overall teammate – or in Kittle's words tight ends around the league "are scoring touchdowns."
"In my opinion, every day is National Tight End Day, but the NFL just wanted to give us one specified weekend, which is the last weekend in October. So, thank you to them for that," Kittle said. "But it's fun just the fact that tight ends get a little bit of recognition on this one day and all the tight ends are mic'd up. It's just fun. Tight end is kind of like a brotherhood. It's a position that I want to see everyone succeed all the time.
"I want to see tight ends scoring touchdowns. I want to see them blocking guys, pancaking guys, breaking tackles, pass pro, I like seeing it all. And so, a day that you can recognize all the great tight ends across the league is a great day. And I'm looking forward to our second-annual National Tight End Day."