The 2-3 Patriots return to Gillette Stadium on Sunday to take on Jimmy Garoppolo and the 3-3 San Francisco 49ers. Coming off a disappointing loss, New England was able to get to back to a normal practice routine following two weeks of complications from Covid-19 that left them shorthanded and without their usual amount of preparation.
Following an appearance in Super Bowl 54, the 49ers have been decimated by injuries early this season, losing some of their best defensive players along with an abbreviated absence by Garoppolo, who is now back in action as he continues to fully heal from a high ankle sprain suffered against the Jets.
The 49ers still have the weaponry to put the pressure on New England, with all-league tight end George Kittle and a talented duo of young receivers in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk leading the way, complemented by an aggressive defense.
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Despite numerous the challenges of the last two weeks, it was still surprising to see the Patriots put up a season low in yards and points in their loss to the Broncos. The execution was clearly not up to the level that it usually is, and while fans can take issue with the personnel, it's really about getting the offense back into sync.
The team could get a big boost with the potential return of David Andrews and Shaq Mason, two highly athletic interior offensive linemen who are a huge part of what New England does on offense. It all starts on the ground and the Pats should be able to exploit a highly-aggressive 49ers front.
The offense hasn't found the same stride ever since Andrews was lost to a broken thumb after Week 2, looking a lot like they did without him in 2019.
Ultimately, the plays have been there, but an out-of-practice offense didn't have their timing and execution down to take advantage. With a full week of practice and reinforcements back, expectations should be higher for the Patriots offense this week.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
Better to takeaway than giveaway
You might not have to look past the seven giveaways the Patriots have had in their last two games to get a sense of how they've been undercutting themselves. The turnovers were some of the plays that decided both the Chiefs and Broncos game and must be eliminated.
A team that prides themselves on being safe with the ball, the Patriots are now breaking even between giveaways and takeaways, putting them smack dab in the middle of the league's rankings. Only once before have the Patriots not had a positive turnover ratio, going all the way back to 2005.
Simply not giving the 49ers any extra possessions is an easy point of emphasis this week and one which the Pats can usually be counted on for. San Francisco got back on track last week after having back-to-back three giveaway games but their defense has the 4th-fewest takeaways in the NFL.
Keeping the 49ers run game in check on early downs will be a difficult task, but by doing so the Patriots can force Jimmy Garoppolo out of his short-passing comfort zone and into third-and-longs. When forced to go downfield, the mistakes will come.
But the most vital part is, in the words of running backs coach Ivan Fears, hanging on to that damn ball.
Deal with Kittle
The praise for tight end George Kittle was everywhere this week and for good reason, he's the kind of all-around player who has an impact on every down. While the 49ers certainly have a well-designed offense with multiple threats, Kittle is the one who truly makes it go and a key part of the gameplan must be to make it as hard as possible for Garoppolo to go to Kittle, especially in key moments.
To be sure, there's no single answer for a player as good as Kittle. Removing him from the gameplan will be a full effort from multiple players on defense. For the most part, New England has done a good job against the tight ends they've faced this season. Darren Waller had two catches on four targets, while Travis Kelce had just three catches on seven targets.
But Kittle poses the biggest threat yet and he's just as vital to the offense as the banged-up Waller was to the Raiders and every bit as dangerous to break the game open. Kyle Dugger and JoeJuan Williams have had their moments, good and bad, in tight end coverage roles and both should be some part of the plan against Kittle.
Knowing where Kittle is on every snap, not allowing him a free release and then tackling him before he can pick up any extra yardage on the catches he does make will all be critical elements.
Pursuit and Tackle
San Francisco will stress a defense in a number of ways, which includes horizontally where the team employs their receivers in multiple roles as effectively as any team in the league. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne are all tough yards-after-catch players. Samuel alone averages a whopping 12.4 yards-after-catch.
This highlights how critical pursuit and tackling must be against this offense and why the Patriots getting a full week of practice is so critical to get their fundamentals down. Defending the full width of the field will require great team defense, where the run force cornerbacks are as critical to containing the run as the edge players are.
This isn't an ideal matchup for the defensive-back-heavy Patriots, but getting their defensive line healthy will provide a big boost and give San Francisco something different to deal with that what they've seen through New England's first five games.
This will be a physical battle and the Patriots defense must bring their best energy and fight for the full 60 minutes.
The Patriots offense should look much better this week but this won't be an easy game and they'll need their best overall team effort of the season to get break their two-game losing streak. By getting back to a practice routine and having some of their best players return, the Patriots finally have some positive momentum rolling into the game. This week it carries over and helps the Pats get their best win of the season.
Patriots 24, 49ers 20