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Patriots vs 49ers preview: How New England’s defense will find success against San Francisco

While the New England Patriots are entering Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers coming off back-to-back losses, the defense actually has been playing its best football of the season as of late: the unit slowed down the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos enough to put the team in a position to come away victoriously each time, with the offense being unable to capitalize on the opportunities it provided.

Going up against the 49ers this week, the Patriots will face an offense that has not had a lot of statistical success so far this season: San Francisco is ranked just 19th in point scored on offense per game (24.7), and also near the middle of the pack in other categories. The advanced statistics also do not do the unit much favors, with the 49ers ranking 13th in DVOA (4.3%), 19th in success rate (45.4%) and 20th in expected points added (0.053).

That being said, the return of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to full health only makes the unit a better one — despite it losing starting running back Raheem Mostert to a high-ankle sprain. So, what do the Patriots have to do in order to successfully slow down Garoppolo and head coach/de facto offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s attack? Let’s take a look at some key points that might help New England’s defense find success versus the 49ers.

Generate pressure with four

Jimmy Garoppolo may have helped leas the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season, but he has never developed into the top-tier quarterback the team hoped it would get when it sent a second-round draft choice to the Patriots in exchange for him back in 2017. That being said, a healthy Garoppolo is certainly still a good player and one capable of putting pressure on opposing defenses as part of Shanahan’s run-centric offensive scheme.

All in all, the 28-year-old has completed 63 of 99 passing attempts for a combined 735 yards, seven touchdowns and a pair of interceptions — solid numbers across the board. When taking a closer look at them, however, we can see that there is some variety to them when comparing blitzing and non-blitzing situations. This, in turn, is something the Patriots defense might have to keep in mind when going up against Garoppolo.

When blitzed, according to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo has been magnificent: he has completed 22 of 33 pass attempts for 382 yards and five touchdowns. He has been sacked twice, but all in all has been very good in terms of identification and decision making when defenses decide to bring extra pass rushers his way. The same cannot be said when teams are only rushing four, however, despite the sample size being rather small.

So far this year, Garoppolo has dropped back 73 times against four-man rushes — and the results have been up and down: he completed 41 of 66 pass attempts for 353 yards as well as two touchdowns and two interceptions. His yards per attempt go down significantly when not blitzed compared to being blitzed (5.3 to 11.6) as does his passer rating (73.6 to 145.5). His sacks per dropback stay relatively the same, meanwhile.

What does this mean for New England? The Patriots should try to get pressure with four defenders, something they have been able to do repeatedly this season so far. While rushing four sounds like a relatively straight-forward approach, it does not mean the defense cannot challenge Garoppolo and the offensive line in front of him.

The Patriots are among the best teams in football when it comes to creating pressure via their scheme, while also fielding a group of players capable of executing twists and stunts to make life difficult for the blockers in front of them. No matter what the team is trying to do, though, the goal should remain the same: force Garoppolo into bad decisions despite just rushing four defenders.

It has been said before, but George Kittle is pretty good at playing the ol’ football game. He is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, and also is a serious threat as a pass catcher — something that is evidenced by his stat-line so far this season. While he did miss a pair of games earlier this season because of a knee injury, Kittle is still the 49ers’ leader in the major receiving categories: he has caught 30 passes for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Long story short, he knows how to beat defenses, and the 49ers rely on him to do that quite a bit. Naturally, the Patriots need to find a way to slow him down and minimize his impact on the game. When it comes to coverage, he should be priority number one.

The first thing the defense has to do is to find him. This should be rather easy, though, at least compared to some of the other top-tier tight ends New England has gone up against so far this season: while players such as the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the Las Vegas RaidersDarren Waller spend only 40.2 and 61.3 percent of their snaps aligned in-line, respectively, Kittle is playing that role on 70.5 percent of his snaps.

Regardless of alignment, though, the Patriots will need to be ready for Kittle and his role in the 49ers’ West Coast offense — one that puts a premium on timing pattern and crossing routes over the middle. Kittle has proven himself a productive player within this scheme and San Francisco has regularly used him to find holes in the opposing coverage. Just ask the Miami Dolphins, who held him to 44 yards on four catches. While this was Kittle’s worst statistical output of the season so far, he still made his fair share of plays.

The following play is a good illustration how he did that versus Miami, and how the 49ers like to use him in their passing game:

NFL GamePass

One of the comparatively rare occasions of Kittle (#85) aligning in the slot, he was able to find the soft spot in the Dolphins’ Cover 3 scheme for an 11-yard game. Miami is playing with four zones underneath and the two-time Pro Bowler was able to get into his route unopposed to run a quick in behind the two middle linebackers to get open. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch play, but one that shows how easy it is for Kittle to do damage when not accounted for properly.

So, what can the Patriots learn from a relatively easy play like that and from his general role within San Francisco’s offense? It’s easy: that they should keep an eye out on him on every play, and make him a priority when it comes to their alignments.

This, in turn, means that we could see some plays like the ones New England ran against the aforementioned Darren Waller: Waller was also his team’s clear top target in passing game heading into the contest against the Patriots, and the defense treated him as such. This means that the unit could try a team approach once again — it used nine different players in coverage against Waller back in Week 3 — and throw different looks at him.

One method the Patriots liked to use to make life hard for Waller, and later Travis Kelce as well, was chipping him at the line of scrimmage:

NFL GamePass

On this play, Waller (#83) lined up in the left-side slot with New England countering with a single-high safety look and linebacker Brandon Copeland (#52) on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Copeland was not in coverage of Waller, though, but instead was asked to re-route him after his release before safety Adrian Phillips (#21) picked him up into the deeper portion of his route. Challenging the tight end’s release and being ready to pick him up will be a key again this week for New England this week against Kittle.

What the Patriots also did versus Waller was running a bracket coverage look. The following play has cornerback Stephon Gilmore (#24) and safety Devin McCourty (#32) use some high-low coverage to make his quarterback look elsewhere:

NFL GamePass

New England again played man-to-man coverage across the board out of a single-high look, with Gilmore and Waller originally facing off on the strong left side of the offensive formation. At the snap, Gilmore opened up his hips to invite Waller to the inside before playing a bail technique. The NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year knew that he could play Waller like that because of Devin McCourty’s presence over the top.

Derek Carr (#8) might have had an opportunity to test the coverage with Waller a step ahead of Gilmore, but the Patriots’ Cover 1 defense made it hard for him to throw the ball into the heart of the defense: Gilmore was close to Waller, with McCourty looming over the top and both Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) and Kyle Dugger (#35) also roaming underneath. The tight end being rerouted into the middle of the field after his break therefore created an unfavorable situation for him and his quarterback.

Against San Francisco, the Patriots might use a lot more of this: by trying to force Kittle into traffic while in man-to-man coverage, and by using deep help to force Jimmy Garoppolo into some tough decisions and tight-window throws. Kittle is no worse than Waller as a pass catcher, so New England again will need to bring its A-game in terms of defensive communication and carrying out its assignments against him.

Incorporate outside zone counters

While the passing game is the most effective way to move the football, the 49ers employ as balanced an offensive attack as any opponent the Patriots will face this year. The most dangerous feature of that attack is the outside zone run out of personnel groupings featuring fullback Kyle Juszczyk: when in 12 or 21 personnel, San Francisco runs the football on 88 percent of plays, according to CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar, with 41 percent of those runs built around an outside zone scheme.

What is outside zone, though? Essentially, it is a running scheme in which the offensive line focuses on moving into pre-defined spaces rather than taking on opposing defenders one-on-one or two-on-one. The linemen are often moving in unison towards the sidelines, while the ball carriers are asked to either bounce around them to the outside or either cut up the field or across the formation to the other side.

A well-executed outside zone run looks like this, from the 49ers’ 24-16 win over the Los Angeles Rams last week:

NFL GamePass

San Francisco did not just use the five offensive linemen as blockers, but also had a pair of tight ends aligned on the line of scrimmage as well as a wide receiver on the backside of the formation. After the snap, the line moved to its right-side spacing with rookie running back JaMycal Hasty (#38) receiving a pitch and reading his blocks to follow up the field. The 49ers are creating some significant movement with players quickly getting to the second level to pave the way for a 9-yard gain.

The play itself looks rather easy but one missed block could mess it up. Either that, or a defense capable of shooting the gaps between the blockers to get into the backfield — something the Patriots have prominently done in Super Bowl 53 against another zone-heavy team, the aforementioned Rams.

In order to slow down Los Angeles’ potent ground game back then, the team used a 6-1 base defensive alignment that looked like as follows on the first defensive snap of the game. The Rams used a man-blocking approach on this play, but the Patriots were still well positioned in order to counter the outside zone from this alignment as well:

NFL GamePass

New England used its two outside defenders to contain the edge run, while also being able to account for every gap up front. Likewise, the lone off-the-ball defender — in the Patriots’ case Dont’a Hightower (#54) — was in a position to react to the potential cut-back run that is a prominent part of outside zone. Using this 6-1 front out of its base 4-3 defense allowed the team to force L.A. into the heart of the defense and big-bodied players such as defensive tackles Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Adam Butler.

Of course, that game was from two years ago and a lot has changed since then. While the Patriots might still use their fair share of 6-1 looks to slow down the 49ers, they also could incorporate different elements in order to take advantage of their current personnel — one that is significantly lighter and focused on defensive backs, and one that is given up 5.2 yards per carry against the outside zone so far this season.

Accordingly, the Patriots might try to use more so-called bear fronts in order to have a wide edge but still keep their preferred nickel and dime looks on the field. Those would essentially look as follows, with the secondary playing a Cover 4 defense to further help against the outside zone:

The principles are the same as the ones mentioned above: force runs into the heart of the defense where the defensive tackles and inside off-the-ball linebackers are waiting to attack any potential cut-backs or up-the-alley runs. The Patriots will likely prefer running this look as it would give them more flexibility given their current personnel — one that could look as follows when applied in order of the schematic outlook above:

Defensive line: SLB John Simon — E Deatrich Wise Jr. — NT Adam Butler — E Lawrence Guy — JLB Chase Winovich

Off-the-ball: MLB/Star Adrian Phillips — WLB Ja’Whaun Bentley

Secondary: FCB J.C. Jackson — SS Jason McCourty — FS Devin McCourty — BCB Stephon Gilmore

The Patriots would rotate quite a bit on the defensive side of the ball — enter safety Kyle Dugger as an additional star option, for example — but a personnel group like the one above would help them keep their best players on the field while also being stout against the run.

The main problem, of course, could be the relative light personnel up front: with big-bodied defensive tackle Beau Allen not yet available despite returning to practice earlier this week, New England is basically using a defensive back in place of another linebacker. While Adrian Phillips is a quality player capable of carrying out his run assignments and properly reading his keys, he is built differently than Ja’Whaun Bentley and therefore a potential target to be attacked in the running game.

Be disciplined against play-action

Game planning and play calling in the NFL is often reactionary, but not just to counter what a defense is doing: it also is trying to build off of previous plays that have been run to throw a defense off its rhythm. From the 49ers’ perspective, this means using play-action concepts in order to challenge a defense that will likely use additional bodies in the box to make Garoppolo beat it with his arm.

So far, San Francisco’s quarterback has been quite successful passing out of play-action sets: he has completed 72 percent of his passes — coincidentally, the Patriots’ Cam Newton is leading the league with an 80.4 percent success rate on such plays — and has thrown for 218 yards and 8.7 per attempt. With a potent rushing attack helping them, Garoppolo and the 49ers have been able to do some damage on play-action.

From the defensive perspective, the goal has to be clear: don’t fall for the fake hand-off, especially in the secondary and off-the-ball. Kyle Shanahan’s unit has done a tremendous job of not giving away its intentions regarding handing off the football before the snap, which in turn will put pressure on New England’s defense to properly read its keys and react promptly in case a play is not developing the way it is supposed to do.

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