Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Sunday's home game against New England.**
With New England coming into town, fresh off their bye week, the Patriots and Bill Belichick should be ready to go. Since he's been with the Patriots, Belichick's got a record of 6-2 coming off of bye weeks. But, historical records like that, I think you ask how many guys does he actually have on his team from eight years ago? Not many, and so the statistical analyses that go back that far are overblown.
I do think thought that any team coming off a bye has an advantage, just because they had an extra week to prepare. Secondly, players are going to be fresher.
And the Patriots are still angry about allowing Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins to come into their own stadium and beat them badly. The Dolphins torched the Patriots by allowing Brown to take direct snaps. There are always subtle nuances that go on week after week in the NFL, and each year a new trend starts.
We've already seen the 49ers use Frank Gore in the backfield as a quarterback, and obviously it was Ronnie Brown running the single wing that had an effect on the Patriots. But, it doesn't take long for any team in the NFL to adapt, either offensively or defensively.
So, certainly, the Patriots are going to be well schooled and well versed in the single wing, the option. Belichick will cover it all this week. That Miami offense just took it to the Patriots that game, and it was a surprise I'm sure for New England after having won something like 21-straight regular season games. But I expect them to regroup and be ready this weekend.
New England runs the 3-4 and one advantage the 49ers have is that they saw a 3-4 defense every day in practice during training camp. You're not going to see a lot of exotic looks versus that 3-4 front, but when Mike Martz goes four wide receivers, you're obviously going to see a sub package of Nickel or Dime on defense. That's where you'll get some of those exotic looks, which is no different than any other league. It's a chess match. The one thing the 49ers have to do is they have to change up some of their sight adjustments, their hot reads.
Early on, J.T. O'Sullivan was able to hit his hot routes to the wide receivers when a corner blitz came or a strong safety blitz came versus the Saints. But the Saints made an adjustment and took away the inside receiver. The 49ers need to then start running guys on different routes on the sight adjust with the guy basically going at a little less than a 45-degree angle to the sideline. You've got to be able to change those things up.
We've also heard Belichick talk about Mike Martz's offense and how he loves to run the deep comebacks and deep in routes. Those are the staples of Martz's offense. Those things take a long time to develop because it's a seven-step drop, and that means the offensive line has to protect a long time.
Barry Sims and Joe Staley have their work cut out for them this week because they'll have to handle Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. Vrabel is probably their best linebacker in terms of blitzing and Thomas is a beast coming off the edge. The 49ers offense must be aware of where Vrabel is on the field, and where he's coming from.
That's not to give a free pass to the 49ers interior linemen though because as far as pass rushers go, the Patriots best guy is definitely defensive end Richard Seymour. He's a guy who will be in on their base packages, and in on all their sub packages as well. He and Ty Warren both are going to be guys who the 49ers offensive line is going to have to do a better job with.
One of the best ways to handle a team's pass rush or blitz package is to be able to run the football. The 49ers were able to run the ball very well in the first half against the Saints and then got away from it. Gore is leading the NFL in total yards. I think you need to feed him the football.
It will be tough however against a New England defensive line that features three former No. 1 picks. Vince Wilfork has got to be one of the top three nose tackles in the NFL. He's an absolute mauler. You could double-team him on almost every play.
Another guy who is playing really well for the Patriots is the rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo. They're saying he might have a cast on his hand, but we saw how that didn't really affect Joe Staley too much last year. He's a guy who will definitely attack the line of scrimmage. He's got great speed, instincts and awareness, and he's definitely a guy who has to be accounted for. Gore vs. Mayo is a great matchup.
In the secondary, I think you have to identify safety Rodney Harrison. He is a playmaker, and he plays such a mental game that I can see him trying to take Vernon Davis out of his game: He'll spend most of the game jawing at somebody on the 49ers offense, and at the sidelines. That's just his game, and he'll try to take emotional guys like Davis out of their game.
I would hope that Isaac Bruce will be very aware of that during the game. Guys like Isaac, most of the offensive linemen, and Gore all have to take it upon themselves to not allow Rodney Harrison to get inside of Davis', or anyone else's head.
The biggest difference this year with the Patriots offense is not having Tom Brady under center.
Knowing that the Patriots can't put up big passing numbers without Brady allows opposing offenses to rein it in a little bit. They're not forced to throw the football to try to keep up. That affects the Patriots defense. First, their sack totals are down because teams haven't had to throw the ball against them to play catch up.
It also changes things up as far as the running game for the Patriots — that becomes more important. Without the threat of Brady shredding the secondary, it becomes harder to run the ball. The loss of Brady has had such an enormous impact on the Patriots.
I think blitzing this Sunday will be a strategy the 49ers have to adopt. Sitting back in coverage, statistically it worked against Arizona, but the game was still lost. Statistically, it worked in terms of a victory against Seattle, but the Seahawks moved the ball all over the place. To me, it seems like a dangerous game to play if they sit back and react and wait for what the offense is going to do to them.
There's a solid strategy behind going "Big Nickel" and playing a lot of coverage and not running a lot of blitzes, but one of the reasons that young guys play so well in the preseason is because they're facing very simple offenses or very simple defenses.
One of the mistakes the 49ers have made is to run a lot of the same packages.
It's not just about different coverages and different schemes, it's about running different personnel groups just to change up the look. I think the 49ers need to play different packages this week: 3-4, 4-3, Big Nickel, Dime — do it all.
You saw early on Takeo Spikes get pressure with the blitz and it worked. Why did we get away from that? You get scared. You get a little timid when you get one of those deep balls thrown on you. But now you're saying, 'Wow, if we don't get there with a five- or a six-man rush, we can't cover these guys deep. So, I'm going to back off and go with the four-man rush.' It doesn't matter who the quarterback is, it's not going to work.
That's not to say you can blitz every time either. You can't. That doesn't work either, but you've got to keep it mixed up throughout the game.
So far, it seems historical, for Nate Clements and Walt Harris to play their best football against top-notch receivers. If that's the case, then they should play great this week because those are two very productive receivers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Moss has been doing this a long time, so there's certain things you'll be able to read based off of his splits, of down and distance, his stance, based off of his release what he's going to do. There's plenty of film on both guys for Nate and Walt to study.
On the ground, Laurence Maroney is a guy who they're a little disappointed with because he doesn't run very hard between the tackles. He's a good guy once he gets outside the tackles, but he's a little bit of a dancer outside. Sammy Morris is more of a power, straight-ahead runner. They'll use him a little bit, and then on 3rd down they'll use Kevin Faulk.
I think the 49ers should play some eight men in the box and box those guys up outside in one-on-one coverages and see if Cassel can beat you.
That's my take, but tune in on Sunday to see how things shake out.