After giving up a number of big plays in the passing game to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints last week, the San Francisco 49ers defensive unit looks to rebound against a quality opponent this Sunday when the New England Patriots visit Candlestick Park.
The National Football League's reigning Most Valuable Award winner, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, won't be in action on Sunday, as he is out for the season with a torn ACL, but Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss and the rest of the New England offense can certainly present a formidable challenge for the 49ers defense.
"We're looking to come out there this weekend, redeem ourselves and play better football on the defensive side," linebacker Joe Staley said before Thursday's practice. "Last week wasn't the kind of football we want to play, especially defensively."
Willis said he's excited for the chance to compete against a New England team, who went undefeated last season and into the playoffs before they were upset 17-14 by the Giants in the Super Bowl.
"For the most part, it's a good opportunity because it's the only game of this week, but even more so, it would be great for our defense to go out there and play the kind of football we know how to play against a good New England football team," Willis said.
Even without Brady, the 49ers defense knows that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will have something special cooked up for them coming off of their bye week. The last time the Patriots saw the field was on September 21, when they were badly beaten at home 38-13 by the Miami Dolphins.
"Quite naturally after a bye week, you want to have something different that you haven't shown," cornerback Nate Clements said. "We'll be prepared for that. I think we're up for the challenge."
Coming off the bye week should also help New England's first year starter Matt Cassel, who has done a respectable job as Brady's replacement, completing 67 percent of his passes.
"Obviously they believe in him, he's a starting quarterback for them," Willis said. "I'm not going to take anything from him. Anytime you're a starting quarterback in the National Football League, you must be doing something right. So we're just having the same focus this week as if it was Brady back there playing. And I know people are saying, 'Well, he's not Tom Brady,' but he's still a starting quarterback and he's capable of making big plays just as well."
Although he doesn't have the same accolades as Brady, the 49ers have a lot of respect for Cassel, and several were complimentary of his scrambling abilities.
"I feel like he stepped in and is doing the job well," cornerback Tarell Brown said. "He's getting the ball out of his hands quick, making good decisions on the run and just trying to keep their offense rolling, putting the ball in the playmakers hands and let them do the rest."
With time to throw, Cassel will look to air out deep passes to Moss. Although Moss has only one touchdown so far on the season, the 49ers need only look at his 1,493 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns to understand his potential.
"I think Randy can stretch the defense vertical and make big plays," Clements said. "He can take it all the way in a second. He's a dynamic player and can get past defenses."
While Moss stretches defenses vertically, Clements said the Patriots other well-known wideout Wes Welker can shift a defense in a whole different manner.
"Wes, I think he stretches defenses in a different way," Clements said. "In the middle of defenses or in the slot, he can hurt you. We're going to try and disrupt him and have as tight of coverage as we can."
Outside linebacker Parys Haralson, the 49ers sack leader with three on the season, insists that pressuring the inexperienced Cassel will be a major key in Sunday's matchup for the 49ers. The 49ers didn't notch a sack on Drew Brees last week, and the Saints quarterback torched the back end with several explosive pass plays.
"It's always important to get pressure up front," he said. "With receivers like [Randy] Moss and [Wes] Welker, guys who get the ball, and a good tight end in [Ben] Watson, we're going to need to get pressure and stir it up a little bit and cause a couple of turnovers."
Willis agrees with Haralson, and he might even find himself getting in on the act. Last week, the 49ers sent their Pro Bowl linebacker on a delayed blitz in New Orleans during one of the first series, but backed off as the game went on. With New England featuring three returning Pro Bowl offensive linemen in center Dan Koppen, left tackle Matt Light and guard Logan Mankins, the 49ers might need some extra help in their pass rush efforts.
"We have got to get pressure on the quarterback and we got to get him rattled. Anytime our front seven is doing that, it helps the db's big time and the backs," he said. "So we just got to keep getting pressure on the quarterback , get him scrambling and get his mind going. Hopefully it plays into our favor."
Giving up 363 passing yards last week against the Saints wasn't the 49ers only problem on defense. The unit also allowed power running back Deuce McAllister to push the pile for big gains and keep the chains moving.
New England likewise features four talented running backs, who all are known for being physical runners in LaMont Jordan, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk. The 49ers will likely see the most from Maroney as he looks to return to action after missing he missed the Miami game with an injured shoulder.
"Maroney is a hard running back, he runs downhill, can make the cuts, and has got speed to get outside of you," outside linebacker Parys Haralson said. "And with Lamont Jordan, they have a bunch of running backs that are good backs. We have to be prepared to come in and stop each and every one of them."
"They run the ball exceptionally well," added Willis of the Patriots ground game. "The biggest thing for us is that regardless of who they have back there, we have just got to play the kind of team defense we know how to play. And that's our biggest focus this week."
With the game just days away, many of the 49ers are ready to get back out on the field this Sunday and prove to the entire NFL they are one of the top defenses.
"I think we're excited every time we get the opportunity to step on the field. Guys have something to prove every time we step out there," Brown said. "I think we definitely want to bounce-back from last week and show everybody we're one of the top secondary's in the league."
Thursday Practice Notes:
Linebacker Manny Lawson missed his second day of practice with a hamstring injury, and is not expected to play this Sunday, potentially paving the way for linebacker Tully Banta-Cain to see his first action of the season. Last year's off-season acquisition from the Patriots has been inactive so far this season.