It’s difficult to say what Bill Belichick does best, but near the top of that lengthy list is his ability to neutralize any threat his opponent presents.
It’s how the New England Patriots kept a close game against a supercharged Kansas City Chiefs offense, or how they rendered Darren Waller useless in their win over the Las Vegas Raiders.
In Week 7, New England is coming off of a demoralizing loss to the Denver Broncos, but a home game against former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers could be the break this team needs. Fortunately, the Patriots had experience with a similarly-built team in Week 3 as they held Josh Jacobs and Waller to 80 yards combined.
Here’s what Belichick will likely take away from the 49ers in this week’s takeaway column:
George Kittle and the Run Game
The 49ers may have made their way to the Super Bowl last season, but it was with a defense that was frequently referred to as one of the best in the NFL (the other, of course, being the Boogeymen). Richard Sherman, Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner played valuable roles in a defense that nearly trumped Kansas City’s powerful offense.
It was the defense that brought San Francisco through their 2019 season and to the championship game rather than their offense, which largely relied on tight end George Kittle and a rotating committee of running backs.
This season, their gameplan has been met with mediocre success: San Francisco is last in the NFC West at 3-3. While they’ve been majorly affected by injury losses, Kyle Shanahan’s run-centric game plan helped them win an important divisional matchup against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6.
Running a balanced matchup that doesn’t rely heavily on the pass works for the 49ers. While Jimmy Garoppolo is not a bad quarterback, he also hasn’t been as great as his early career undefeated record suggested. Their Super Bowl loss came down to a touchdown pass Garoppolo overthrew -- pressuring the quarterback is essential to any game plan, but if Belichick can keep the ball in Garoppolo’s hands rather than out of them, he’s more likely to make mistakes and potentially throw an interception.
The best way to encourage Garoppolo to throw is to discourage the run. New England wildly successful with their Cover 0 blitz last year, largely due to skilled secondary players who excelled in man coverage. Having four, five or even six guys on the defensive line or managing gaps can cover run possibilities extensively, meaning all that would be left is the pass. If there are six guys thinking about the run, that leaves five guys covering any pass possibilities.
The 49ers have limited options in the passing game, something Shanahan has been transparent about since the season debut. Their top three wide receivers are Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne, three decent young receivers who will struggle to get opportunities against Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson this week.
Their biggest threat in the pass game is easily tight end George Kittle, who will be striving to celebrate National Tight End Day against the Patriots. The dead giveaway that this is what Belichick will take away from San Francisco is the fact that he complimented him this week, saying he's "as good as anybody I've coached." Like Michael Corleone kissing Fredo and marking him for death, when Belichick singles out his opponent’s best player and effuses compliments in the press conference, what he’s really doing is marking the player he plans to neutralize in their upcoming matchup.
Marking Kittle as a problem is one thing, but taking him out of the game is another. To do this, New England will likely draw from their Week 3 matchup against the Raiders, in which they successfully knocked TE threat Darren Waller out of the game.
Both Jason McCourty and Joejuan Williams covered Waller, who had two catches for nine yards. Although tight ends are usually covered by strong safeties, Williams presents an intriguing cornerback hybrid option: his towering frame is ideal for covering tall receivers and tight ends.
New England's strategy worked, as Waller didn’t get his first target until the third quarter and only saw four total in the game. Considering that Waller got 105 yards against the Saints and 88 yards against the Bills, his outing against the Patriots was evidently his worst showing yet. It looks like Jackson was right when he said the Patriots “got something” for Waller leading up to the game.
With the tight end covered, there’s still the rushing game to worry about. The Patriots held Las Vegas' Jacobs, one of the best running backs in the NFL, to only 71 yards which, like Waller, was one of his worst outings of the season. The competition is even softer with San Francisco, as they've been plagued by a decimated RB committee all season. As of right now, it seems that Jerick McKinnon and JaMycal Hasty will be in, while Jeff Wilson Jr. could potentially get some red zone work on Sunday as well. McKinnon is a shifty runner with pass-catching abilities, while Hasty looks like a "mini-Marshawn Lynch", which makes coverages for these two different types of backs different. Depending on who is in at the time, the Patriots can adjust their run defense, pulling linebackers back and forth to stuff and contain runs or to limit yards on a quick toss to McKinnon.
If the Patriots have proven anything in the past year, it's that their versatile defense can adapt to just about anything—even to opt-outs, coronavirus cases and injuries.
If the game is confined to Garoppolo's hands instead of Kittle's or Hasty's, this could be another victory for the Patriots in Foxborough.
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