Keys to the game: 49ers/Patriots

Can Niners Pistol-whip Pats with read option?

It's the 49ers and Patriots in Sunday night prime time, and something has to give. The Niners enter the highly-anticipated, nationally televised showdown of NFL powers needing a victory to remain in control of one of the top two playoff seeds in the NFC. NinersDigest identifies 10 keys to the game and what the 49ers need to do to beat the Patriots and end several New England winning streaks.

Turn up the pressure on Tom Brady and keep it cranking
How do you stop Brady and the NFL's top-ranked offense? Well, most often you don't. But you can present disorder to the high-octane operation by disrupting the two-time MVP quarterback with hounding pressure that either throws him out of rhythm or, even better yet, puts him on his back. Statistics show that New England is much more vulnerable when opponents get to Brady for sacks. Brady has been sacked seven times in New England's three losses and just 13 times in the Patriots' 10 wins. In the six games the Pats have won by more than 10 points this season, Brady has been sacked only three times. In New England's other seven games, Brady's been dumped 17 times and the Patriots are 4-3. There's an obvious correlation there. The problem is, getting to Brady with pressure is no easy thing. Brady has been sacked just 20 times on 517 dropbacks this season, and he has got the football out of his hands and into the air within three seconds on 70 percent of his pass attempts. He is a master in the pocket, but he's also not great at getting out of the pocket when it begins collapsing around him. Wherever it comes from, the Niners have to make sure Brady is feeling the heat throughout a chilly evening in New England.

More Moss against his former team
As October became November and November became December, it began to look suspiciously like the 49ers were saving veteran Randy Moss for moments that mattered at the end of the season. This game definitely qualifies. And as circumstances have it, with Kyle Williams out for the season and starter Mario Manningham out again this week with a shoulder injury, the Niners have an urgent need for Moss to step into a more prominent role in the offense. Unleashing more Moss on his former team also seems like a good idea because Moss might be more motivated, but the last time the 49ers had that opportunity, Moss wasn't much of a factor in his return to Minnesota in Week 3. Moss had just three catches for 27 yards in that game as the Niners were upset by the Vikings 24-13. That, however, turned out to be more catches in a game than Moss would have over the next nine weeks – a stretch during which Moss was limited to one or fewer receptions six times. Moss has a combined five receptions for 60 yards while seeing more playing time the past two weeks, but the Niners need him to make more of an impact in his return to the place Moss produced a record-breaking season in 2007.

Wallop Welker in the slot
A considerable portion of the Patriots' top-ranked attack goes through slippery wide receiver Wes Welker, who keeps the New England machine churning on a steady basis with his AFC-leading 95 receptions for 1,116 yards. Welker is small but quick and tough, and he'll work often out of the slot where he can get into his patterns before defenders can get a hand on him. The 49ers have one of the best slot defenders around in cornerback Carlos Rogers, San Francisco's starting left cornerback who will move inside when opponents go to multiple-receiver sets. That provides a tantalizing matchup here when these two Pro Bowl players are matched against each other. But from whichever formation Welker comes at San Francisco, the 49ers must bang him and bump him and try to get him off his crisp routes as Brady's favorite target. When Welker lines up on the edge, the Niners must also let him know it's not going to be a comfortable evening when he ventures into their secondary. Welker needs five receptions to become the first NFL receiver with at least 100 receptions in five consecutive seasons, and if the Niners can keep him at or below that figure it should bode well for San Francisco.

Pistol-whip the Pats
It's time for the 49ers to break out all their guns on offense and start firing away with a scheme that could cause even defensive guru Bill Belichick fits. The Patriots were famously flummoxed a few seasons back when Miami came at them with a wildcat formation featuring a full-house backfield that sparked the Dolphins to a convincing upset. The Niners run a variation of that with read-option plays out of Pistol formation that features quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a full-house backfield. Most NFL teams aren't prepared for this offensive wrinkle because not many teams run it. But the Niners need to break it out against the Pats to see how New England reacts to it. As Kaepernick has displayed often, he's a big play waiting to happen when running the option, and he now has an explosive scatback to run it with in LaMichael James, who excelled in college running option plays. Kaepernick scored on a 50-yard run on a read-option last week to clinch San Francisco's victory over Miami, and if the Niners are testing the edges and stretching the field against the Patriots, they also will be running away from the heart of the New England defense in stout tackle Vince Wilfork and productive middle linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.

Grind it out with ball-control ground game
While the 49ers should mix it up a bit this week on offense over the rather conservative attack they've featured the past two weeks, they also shouldn't get away from what they do best: Grind out yards and wear down defenses with the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack. New England's 24th-ranked defense is best at stopping the run, so the Niners must match strength vs. strength with Frank Gore and Co. to set the tempo and set up play-action passing opportunities. Even more important, the Niners must use their run game to help control the clock and keep their offense on the field. When the San Francisco offense is on the field, that means the New England offense isn't, and that's a win-win scenario for the 49ers.

Aldon Smith vs. Nate Solder
One of the game's most significant individual matchups is something that's been seen before even though Smith and Solder both are second-year veterans who have never met as NFL players. They did, however, meet in college when Smith's Missouri team played Solder's Colorado team in 2009. As a redshirt freshman, Smith was matched up often against Solder and responded with a college career-high three sacks and four tackles behind the line of scrimmage as Missouri cruised to a 36-17 victory. Three years later, the rematch is for much higher stakes as Solder will be protecting Brady's blind side at left tackle and Smith will often be coming right at him from right outside linebacker in base defensive packages. The Nos. 7 and 17 overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft, Smith and Solder both have come a long way since their college days, particularly Smith, who if he can do again what he did against Solder and Colorado back in 2009 would tie the NFL record for sacks. Smith has had at least one sack in seven consecutive games and 14 sacks in San Francisco's past six games, and with a NFL-high 19½ sacks, he needs three to tie Michael Strahan's league record set in 2001. Solder has his work cut out for him, and Smith admitted this week he is anxious to go against the young offensive tackle again.

Take the run away from New England offense
New England's offense is about Brady and his relentless aerial attack, but that's not what it's all about. The Patriots have balanced their offense and taken the load off their passing game with an effective rushing attack led by Stevan Ridley, who ranks third among the AFC's leading rushers with 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Even though the Pats have thrown 499 passes this season, New England is third in the NFL with 434 rushing attempts and leads the league with 20 rushing touchdowns. The Patriots have rushed for 100 or more yards in seven consecutive games, which happens to coincide with their seven-game winning streak. Ridley averages a healthy 4.5 yards a pop, and he's backed up by three complementary backs – Brandon Bolden (5.2 yards per carry), Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen – who all have at least 200 yards rushing and have combined for another seven TDs on the ground. Those backs will be running into the teeth of a defense that ranks second in the NFL in stopping the run and third in rushing average allowed. The Niners need to stuff the Patriots on the ground and take away that element of their diverse and high-powered attack.

Get Vernon Davis involved in passing game; let Kaepernick take his deep shots
Davis, San Francisco's big-play tight end, has just three receptions for 19 yards in the 49ers' past three games, an almost inexplicable total considering San Francisco's sluggishness on offense the past few weeks and the truly game-breaking weapon Davis can be when the 49ers can get the ball to him. That can be a problem, however, because Davis is commanding constant double coverage and safeties rolling over the top in his vicinity on a regular basis. The Niners need to try and get him the ball more often this week against the NFL's 29th-ranked passing defense, and they need to allow Kaepernick more shots down the field to his deep weapons such as Davis, Moss and Michael Crabtree. Kaepernick completed just two passes of more than 20 yards last week against a Miami defense that was one of the NFL's worst against the pass. That came three weeks after he completed six passes of 20 yards or more in his first NFL start against a Chicago defense that excels against the pass. That's not exactly a sign of progress. Opponents have been forcing Kaepernick into shorter throws in recent weeks, and the Niners have to get back to getting the ball down the field to their weapons, Davis in particular.

Get off the field on third down
In another intriguing matchup between the NFL's top-ranked offense and second-ranked defense, the Patriots lead the league in third-down efficiency while the Niners rank second in stopping opponents from converting on third down. The Patriots lead the NFL with 361 first downs while the San Francisco defense has allowed just 219 first downs, the second-fewest in the league. Needless to say, the 49ers want to keep the New England offense off the field. Stopping the prolific Patriots in key third-down sequences and preventing them from keeping drives alive will be paramount in doing that.

Take away the football and win turnover battle
The Patriots are everything the 49ers were last year – a team that takes away the football and also protects it exceptionally well. The 49ers led the NFL with a plus-28 turnover differential last season, when San Francisco committed just 10 turnovers. That's where the Patriots are after 13 games, having committed just 10 turnovers, and New England leads the NFL with a plus-24 turnover differential with its opportunistic defense having forced 34 takeaways. The Niners continue to protect the ball well this season – just 12 turnovers – but with 18 takeaways in 13 games, they have not been the turnover producers on defense they were last season. Forcing the efficient and explosive New England offense into turnovers certainly is something that could turn this game in San Francisco's favor. Brady has thrown just four interceptions in 495 passing attempts this season, so the 49ers will have to earn anything they can get through the air and hit hard and be opportunistic to get the Patriots to put the football on the ground. Conversely, their offense can't give it away against a defense that's been taking it away this season and let New England's dangerous offense have extra opportunities.

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