When watching the Patriots on defense two words come to mind: beatable, and opportunistic. They rank 29th in the league against the pass, giving up an average of 275.5 yards per game, and 8th in the league against the rush with an average of 100.8 yards per game.
Looking at those numbers it would appear that the best way to attack this defense is by airing it out. To that I say hold on. The Patriots have shown that they are vulnerable to the run, especially if you pound it off tackle.
In the 3 games that I watched them on film: Houston, Miami and Indianapolis, each had a good amount of success running the ball at the Patriot defense. In the Houston game for example, Arian Foster picked up gains of 15, and 12 yards during early drives while the game was still in doubt. The key to both is that they were to the side opposite of #75, Vince Wilfork.
The Patriots have also shown that they have a soft spot in the passing game defending the mid-level throw, and defending the edge on swings and quick WR screens. They also like to play a lot of 2 Deep safety and have proven to be caught cheating on those mid-level crossing routes, thus opening up the shot over the top.
Now for the opportunistic part. This defense seems a lot like the 2011 version of the 49ers defense. They are going to give up yards, but then come up with a key take away to keep you from scoring. A perfect example of this was the Texans second possession on Monday night. They drove down the field to the Patriots 21 yard line, but the drive was stopped when Matt Schaub hung a seam pass down the middle to his TE and was intercepted in the end zone.
The prior week in Miami, in a game that New England won 23-13, they were able to force two turnovers deep in Dolphin territory (12 and 25 yard line) that led directly to 10 of their 17 first half points.
Two weeks prior against Indianapolis they turned a close game into a route thanks to 2 interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and a punt return for a touchdown. In short, ball security is an absolute must if you plan on defeating the Patriots.
So how are the 49ers going to attach the Patriots defense? Here is my take:
- Punch them in the mouth with the run game: The 49ers offense is at it's best when it can establish the run early on. The Patriots vulnerability off tackle plays right into the hands of the 49ers off-tackle Power run game. Mix in the Diamond Pistol package and you have a chance to keep them off balance.
- Swings and Screens: Another area where the Patriots have shown they are vulnerable. Again this plays right into a strength of the 49ers. Get Michael Crabtree and LaMichael James involved on the edge of the Patriots defense early to chew up yards and first downs.
- Get the LB's in coverage: The Patriots linebackers are not very strong in coverage. The 49ers should attack them with Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and the RB's by making them run sideline to sideline in coverage. Think about a play similar to the one that they scored on last year in the regular season game against the Giants or in the playoff game against New Orleans where Davis is running a drag route on a linebacker. While Davis struggles to catch and then run if he has to stop, he is deadly if you can keep him moving on this type of route.
- Can you Dig it?: The Patriots vulnerability to the mid-level throws should set up for the 49ers to hit that 15 yard dig route they like to run, along with the skinny post and seam behind the linebacker and in front of the safety.
- Hit me with your best shot: If the 49ers are able to do the things listed above, they should be able to take advantage of a couple shot plays. A deep post route to Moss or the PA Wheel Route to Davis could be open if they get the safeties to cheat.
- Ball Security: Given the opportunistic nature of the Patriots defense this one probably should be at the top. If the 49ers can play their game this week and hold on to the football they are going to stand a great chance of ending the Patriots December dominance in Foxboro.