After a long weekend away from football, the Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium on Monday and began preparations for their upcoming West Coast trip, which gets underway Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.
The 2-2 49ers bear little to no resemblance to the moribund club that visited Foxborough to close out the 2004 campaign in a listless 21-7 Patriots victory, which was the last time New England faced the NFC West co-leaders.
But even though Bill Belichickdoesn't have much familiarity with San Francisco's current personnel, including quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, there are aspects of the 49ers operation that won't take the Pats coach by surprise.
Most notably, the 49ers offense is under the direction of Mike Martz, who came to San Francisco after a two-year stint as offensive coordinator in Detroit and, of course, was the St. Louis Rams head coach in Super Bowl XXXVI when the Patriots pulled off the upset to win their first title. Martz' offense is known for its multiple formations and personnel groupings as well as a deep, slow developing passing game that often leads to pressure on the quarterback.
"They throw a lot of downfield routes. They throw deep in-cuts [and] deep comebacks," Belichick said. "Sometimes they have a lot of receivers out, so occasionally their protection breaks down on that. But they attack the defense at all three levels, the short, intermediate and deep level. They do it every week on a consistent basis so you have to be ready to defend it.
"Sometimes you get to [the quarterback] before they get it off but a lot of times you don't and they hit a lot of 20-, 25-, 30-yard completions – a lot more than most teams do. That's the way they have been historically. I am not saying it's all 80-yard touchdowns but they hit a lot of 20-, 25-yarders. It takes a little longer for those plays to develop."
That extra time needed to get receivers open has often led to trouble for O'Sullivan. The 49ers quarterback is a great story having kicked around NFL Europa and various practice squads through parts of six seasons, including New England's for about a month in the fall of 2006, before landing his first starting job this year. He was with Martz in Detroit a year ago as Jon Kitna's backup and when Martz was jettisoned in the offseason he brought the quarterback with him when head coachMike Nolancame calling.
Despite his presence, albeit brief, on the Patriots practice squad, few inside the team's locker room remembered him.
"Really?" defensive endRichard Seymoursaid. "I don't remember that. What year was it? 2006? I'm on defense. I don't remember that."
Seymour wasn't alone as safety Rodney Harrisonechoed those thoughts. But despite his anonymity, O'Sullivan has shown flashes of ability in his first month as a starter. He completed over 61 percent of his passes, threw four touchdowns and complied a passer rating of 90.0. But the flip side of those numbers comes in the mistakes – three interceptions and an NFL-high 19 sacks.
The latter figure is without question a result of Martz' philosophy, which calls for the quarterback to hold the ball as long as possible while the patterns develop. It can lead to big plays downfield, and it can also lead to trouble. That's why Belichick doesn't see the 49ers pass protection as being the problem when it comes to the pressure O'Sullivan has seen.
"I think overall their pass protection has been good," Belichick said. "I think the line has done a good job whether it's been Jonas Jenningsor Barry Simsin there at right tackle. They have at least done a good job at left tackle. They have played three players inside. Overall, their pass protection hasn't been bad. Like any line it is broken down from time to time but they have done a good job."
How well the Patriots front is able to finish off O'Sullivan before he's able to make those big plays will go a long way toward victory on Sunday. O'Sullivan is an athletic quarterback with good feet and the ability to make plays outside the pocket. He also has a lightning quick release. So it will be imperative for the Patriots pass rushers to stay disciplined and to keep after him throughout the afternoon.
"That's the word, watching [O'Sullivan] on film he's running everywhere, trying to make things happen. Kind of like Brett Favreis moving around, or Tony Romo," defensive end Jarvis Green said. "He's not getting sacked just sitting in the pocket. He's running around getting sacked so that's a little different. You have to be aware and play until the final whistle.
"I like them sitting back there dropping back and just getting sacked. He's made a lot of plays outside the pocket so it will be important for us to keep our rush lanes."
One game the Patriots defenders have spent some time watching is Detroit's 2006 visit to Gillette Stadium that saw New England escape with a 28-21 victory. Playing under Martz' direction, Kitna threw for 314 yards that day and the Patriots needed a late flurry to avoid an upset at the hands of the 2-10 Lions. The defense forced three interceptions and sacked Kitna five times, showing the pros and cons of the Martz offense within the same game.
While putting pressure on the passer come Sunday would seem to be priority No. 1 given the feast-or-famine nature of the 49ers attack, both Green and Seymour agreed that their task begins with stopping Frank Gore. San Fran's gifted tailback is a home run threat (4.9-yard average) who can also get out of the backfield and catch the ball. He's tied with Arnaz Battlefor the team lead with 15 receptions.
"For any defensive player, the ultimate goal is to get sacks of the quarterback and that's what we want to do but we have to get them in those situations," Seymour explained. "We have to put them in situations where we can go after the quarterback and pin our ears back and let loose. But early in the game, we have to be able to stop No. 21."
Familiarity or not, the Patriots face a stiff road test on Sunday against O'Sullivan and the Niners offense, even if no one remembers him.