NFL Week 7 Closer Look: 49ers vs Patriots
By: Maxwell Argento
One of the more captivating games of a stellar footballing weekend between the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots deserves a deeper dive and a closer examination. Along with a summary of the affair, some key concepts to take away that were illuminated by each team must be expounded on.
The contest that for the layperson was billed as “Jimmy G’s return to New England” immediately proved itself to be a mismatch for the home team, with the opening drive for the 49ers being all too easy. A 23-yard run from Deebo Samuel on a jet sweep and a 15-yard reception from George Kittle after faking a block for one of his teammates in the flat were immediate warning signs for the Patriots defense. Two plays later the 49ers punched the ball in for six points, and took a lead that they would never relinquish.
The Patriots responded in a manner that you would expect, by intercepting a Garoppolo pass that led to a short field and three points of their own. With the score at 7–3 in favor of the visitors, the 49ers’ very next drive at the start of the second quarter proved to be the true marker for how the rest of the game would go between the two units. The 10-play drive, which spanned nearly six minutes, resulted in a field goal for the Niners, but meant much more than simply tacking more points on the board. It proved that at the very least Kyle Shanahan and company would be able to move the ball down the field with consistency all game long.
With the Patriots now down by a touchdown and already feeling the pressure of needing to score more points to keep pace with their opponents, surely their man under center was going to be the one to lead the response. Unfortunately for everyone associated with the Patriots, that was far from the reality. Cameron Newton, who didn’t look settled all day long, threw a putrid interception (where he seemed to try to force the ball into loaded coverage) that put them in bad field position and in an even worse place from a momentum perspective.
In reality, the game was over at this juncture. The 49ers used the Newton pick to score another touchdown, and then after forcing a Patriots punt on the next drive, walked right back down to tack on another seven points. The Jeff Wilson Jr. touchdown was particularly disconcerting from a Patriots standpoint, simply because he wouldn’t have been called down if the game was two-hand-touch. Another interception was notched by each team down the stretch of the first half, but the damage had been done. With the score 23–3 going into half and the Pats never having looked threatening on offense, the game should have just been called then.
In the interest of brevity I will spare you the inconsequential details of the second half in which the themes that appeared in the first half seemed to continue. San Francisco ended the game gaining 7.4 yards per play, and tallied 467 total yards of offense, which nearly doubled that of the Patriots (241). Garoppolo in his return ended up going 20–25 for 277 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns, while Newton finished an incredibly disappointing afternoon going 9–15 for 98 yards and 3 interceptions.
Key Concepts: San Francisco 49ers
#1: Kyle Shanahan’s “Tactical Masterclass”
Forgive me for borrowing a term most frequently used in European soccer, but that is exactly what Shanahan provided for the 49ers on Sunday. Shanahan was very aware of the lack of size the Patriots presented up front on their defensive line, and was able to capitalize. The Niners seemed to do a terrific job of using every inch of the field’s width, especially in instances where the Patriots were forced to throw players into the box because of the lack of big bodies up front. Shanahan’s ability to combine his outside zone running schemes with window dressing in the form of his skill players moving pre-snap to either get the ball behind the line of scrimmage or be a decoy is such a dangerous offensive scheme. In a matchup where the 49ers were facing the best secondary they will see all year, Shanahan’s scheme did something vitally important because of that pre-snap movement; it got valuable touches to his best skill players out in space without having to throw the ball pass the line of scrimmage. The tangible effect seen on the game was that we saw 49ers receivers catching the ball or taking a jet sweep and running for large clusters of yards before even being met by a Patriots tackler. When you never see any conflict at the point of attack and only ever see Patriots tackles happening on the second level of the defense you know Shanahan is on fire, and he definitely was several nights ago.
#2: Niner Skill Players
Combine Shanahan’s offensive genius with the ability of the 49er skill players (especially in the run game) and there shouldn’t be any surprise as to how that game went on Sunday.
For not being physically all that imposing, wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are some of the better pass catchers running with the ball after the reception in the NFC. Their ability to see the open hole or crease and stick their foot in the ground to quickly cut and change direction is fantastic. The threat they pose behind the line of scrimmage is real, especially when the defense is confused as to where the ball is actually going. It is no surprise to anyone how effective George Kittle is as the centerpiece of the Niners offense, especially considering who is scheming him open. Oh, and he is the best run blocking tight end to boot. Must be nice being Mr. Kittle. All in all, when you include a healthy Raheem Mostert, as well as Kendrick Bourne and Kyle Juszczyk, you might be looking at the most underrated and dangerous weapons group in the NFC.
#3: Beware of the Upcoming Schedule
The only thing that may take some wind out of the 49ers’ sails is the fact that they’re only two games into the most brutal scheduling stretch in the league. Their next run of games looks like this:
Week 8: @ Seattle
Week 9: vs Green Bay (on a short week)
Week 10: @ New Orleans
Week 12: @ Los Angeles Rams
Week 13: vs Buffalo
I love the way the Niners match up against the Seahawks, Packers and Bills, but having to face Aaron Rodgers on a short week after a division matchup and then traveling twice (despite having a buy on week 11) is rough. Going 3–2 is a minimum requirement if they plan on having a shot to play in some playoff games down the stretch. Important for the 49ers is the fact that they still have four division games to play, which is the perfect place to gain serious ground record-wise and put themselves in a better seeding position.
Key Concepts: New England Patriots
#1: Lack of Size Up Front
The Patriots have the luxury of running out the best secondary in the league, but it doesn't really matter when they need to add bodies to the box to either stop the run or get the offense out of a run-look before the snap. The best teams in the league can stop the run or rush the passer with only four up front, and drop the rest into coverage. The Patriots don’t have a chance stopping either unless they pack the box or send more than four, which in turn puts their backend in more jeopardy than normal. To make it simple, the Patriots want their opponent to not be able to run the ball, which is the opposite of what the 49ers are looking to accomplish. If I am a football team with the Patriots on my schedule down the stretch, I am finding a way to run the ball a lot. Doing so will only mean good things for teams’ play-action, bootleg, and even drop back passing plays. Any way to neutralize the Patriots secondary and get them on the back foot is warranted; a steady dose of a well schemed run attack like we saw Sunday is the only place to start.
#2: No One is Ever Open
The fact of the matter for the Patriots is that they haven’t had a receiver other than Julian Edelman (who currently is banged up) over the last two years that defensive coordinators need to be fearful of. Moves last year like trading a second round pick for Mohamed Sanu showed us just how bereft of weapons Belichick was on the offensive side of the ball, and they haven’t improved one iota. N’Keal Harry looks like the biggest wideout bust of the last several drafts, (especially for where he was taken) and although Damiere Bird is a good third or fourth WR for most clubs, he can’t command double coverage which they are sorely lacking. Tack on the fact that they don’t have a reliable tight end whose primary function is that of a pass catcher to take the load off, and you can understand why Cameron Newton hasn’t look confident in the pocket as of late.
#3: Is Number One Okay?
After the Seattle Seahawks game earlier in the year you could argue that Cam Newton’s stock was as high as it had been since being crowned NFL MVP in 2015. Unfortunately for Newton, the subsequent weeks haven’t been as flattering. Being the root cause of the Covid-19 outbreak within his organization is the worst look, and his performances on the field have been shockingly bad.
Whether the effects of contracting this nasty virus have been underreported (he was deemed asymptomatic) remains to be seen, but it does make me wonder just how sick he has been. At the very least we know that his preparation has been substantially cut due to the Patriot facilities being closed for stretches of time, which could in part explain why everything looks so labored for Newton right now. I expect him to eventually figure it out, and having a full week of prep for a team they know very well in the Buffalo Bills should help him acclimate to “The Patriot Way” once again.
Be on the lookout for my NFL Week 8 Picks and Previews post, where I will go over all of the matchups coming up this weekend, and pick winners straight up and against the spread!