Head coach Kyle Shanahan took advantage of a young defensive coordinator and neutralized the Rams’ star players in the 49ers’ 24-16 win last week.
Week 7 will have no such luxury, and a win should firmly establish Shanahan among the elite minds in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers (3-3) will take on Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots (2-3) at 1:25 p.m.
Here are five players to watch:
Kyle Juszczyk, Fullback, San Francisco 49ers
It will be interesting to see how New England aligns its defense. Belichick usually eliminates the opposing offense’s best two weapons.
Until quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo proves otherwise, the run game will always be the most important piece to the 49ers offense. Tight end George Kittle is easily the other.
Unlike the 49ers, the Patriots have the personnel to play man defense, and do it more than anyone.
Seven New England defensive backs recorded at least 25 snaps against Denver Week 6.
In theory, this should create a size-advantage for Kyle Juszczyk (6’1, 235).
Juszczyk is the highest paid fullback for a reason. He’s a solid blocker and receiver. Outside of Kittle, he might be the best pass catcher on the team.
Although the touches have not been there, Juszczyk remains a mismatch. On 10 targets, Juszczyk has six catches for 75 yards.
Like last week, expect at least one route designed to get Juszczyk open. Shanahan called the right play, but Garoppolo missed Juszczyk.
Despite Belichick’s love for his former draft pick Garoppolo, he won’t take it easy on him. There will be plenty of pressure. It will be up to Garoppolo to hit Juszczyk this time.
Jamar Taylor, Defensive Back, San Francisco 49ers
New England slot receiver Julian Edelman is in the midst of a down season.
His 60.4 yards per game are his lowest since 2012. His catch percentage (55.6%) is his lowest since 2011.
If you subtract his monster game against a horrendous Seattle secondary (eight catches on 11 targets for 179 yards), he has just 12 catches on 25 targets for 123 yards.
Injuries and age have played a big part in the decline.
But on paper, this week’s matchup should lean in his favor.
San Francisco slot corner Jamar Taylor grades a lowly 44.0 on PFF.
Yet, Taylor was serviceable against Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods last week. He was credited with just three catches for 12 yards.
Taylor is still the most vulnerable of the back seven in coverage. The Patriots need to get Edelman, their only player above 300 receiving yards (302), more involved.
If Taylor struggles, the 49ers might need to move Emmanuel Moseley inside, or Jimmie Ward down from his safety spot to combat Edelman.
This would force N’Keal Harry or Damiere Byrd to beat them.
Dre Greenlaw, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
The Patriots’ 5.1 yards per carry is fifth in the NFL. One major reason for their run success is quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton averages 11.1 rushes and 56.3 yards per game. He also has five rushing touchdowns.
He is not like Arizona’s Kyler Murray. He’s not going to speed by you. He will run you over.
Newton runs like a tight end. Imagine Kittle on direct-snap powers. Then imagine Kittle stepping back and throwing the ball. That’s Newton.
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw filled in nicely last week for the injured Kwon Alexander (ankle).
Even if Alexander (DNP Wednesday) is able to go, in two linebacker sets Greenlaw should get all the snaps.
While Alexander has been consistently beaten by zone-reads, Greenlaw is a better tackler and run-defender. Those are very important traits in stopping the 2020 Patriots.
Greenlaw also would make a great QB spy in pass defense.
Newton has the ability to scramble and pick up first downs. He has seven drop backs that he turned into big gains on the ground, one being a 38-yard rush against Denver.
Greenlaw is big enough and fast enough to limit Newton’s scrambles, if he makes the right reads.
James White, Running Back, New England Patriots
In addition to traditional runs, the Patriots love to extend their ground game by utilizing their running backs as pass-catchers.
James White is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. In two less games, White is tied for second on the team in receptions and fourth with 133 receiving yards.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to get White the ball in space. The majority of White’s damage comes on screens and swing passes to move the chains.
He has 10 first downs in three games thus far (seven catches and three runs) and had 46 last year.
White has 157 yards after the catch, meaning most of his catches are behind the line of scrimmage with plenty of blockers in front.
In addition to keeping Newton in the pocket, Greenlaw, Fred Warner and both safeties must quickly read screens and swings to stop White and keep him in the middle of the field.
Kyle Dugger, Defensive Back, New England Patriots
Joejuan Williams and rookie safety Kyle Dugger are the Patriots’ primary tight end defenders.
Williams was plagued by penalties, burned by Travis Kelce for 45 yards, and saw zero defensive snaps last week.
Dugger was also beat by Kelce and Denver backup tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.
But Kansas City and Denver have legitimate deep threats and quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to chuck it. Garoppolo and the 49ers’ receivers thrive closer to the line.
The Patriots could repeat their Las Vegas strategy.
Knowing how important Darren Waller was to Raiders’ success, Belichick designed a game plan to eliminate him from every play.
The Patriots mixed and matched their plethora of defensive backs and often used help over the top. Waller managed just two catches on four targets for nine yards.
Like Waller, Kittle received nice words from Belichick. That’s a sign he’s Belichick’s key to the game.
The Patriots could use Dugger as a shadow while Devin or Jason McCourty provide aid.
Despite the key on Kittle, he’s still destined for a few touches. Shanahan can get his best weapon the ball in space with tight end screens and quick drags.
From that point, it’s up to the Patriots’ tackling.
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