Much of the focus early in the week for Sunday's game in San Francisco has been on the Niners offense and how the Patriots plan on containing Frank Gore. But Bill Belichickhas also referenced San Francisco's pass rush on more than one occasion, and that will be a concern as well.
Mike Nolan's 3-4 alignment can be difficult to recognize at times because it often disguises its looks. The Patriots offensive line has come under fire in recent weeks with Matt Casselunder center. Cassel has been sacked 10 times in just three games, nearly half as many times as Tom Brady was dumped in all of 2007. With San Francisco using different formations and rushers, pass protection will be a premium at Candlestick Park.
"You have to do your homework, there's no doubt about that," center Dan Koppensaid of the Niners varied looks. "They like to move some guys around. Justin Smithcan come from different angles. You just have to be prepared and follow your assignments."
San Francisco's pass rush has been average thus far with just eight sacks through four games. But the Niners have made some alterations to their scheme recently, using a variety of looks in their loss to New Orleans that Belichick felt were effective. Most notably, they began to shift Smith around a bit in an effort to find better matchups for the former Cincinnati Bengal.
"[Smith] flips sides at times," Belichick explained earlier in the week. "When they want to play over-under he is the outside guy on the over-under side, most of the time. They've used him inside some and in some pass rushing situations. They move him around a little bit so you don't know exactly where he is going to be. But he has been a good playmaker for them this year and a very productive guy."
Smith, who was the fourth overall pick in 2001, is the best of the group. He has a pair of sacks thus and 45.5 in his seven-plus-year career. The 6-4, 285-pound Missouri alum is a cross between speed and power sort of in the Aaron Schobelmold. Schobel has given the Patriots fits over the years playing in Buffalo with a similar style. But Belichick cautioned that Smith is not alone.
"They are very athletic up front and have good linebackers headed by Patrick Willisand Takeo Spikes," Belichick added. "They are very active up on the line of scrimmage. They have some big guys like Isaac Sapoaga. They have some fast guys like Justin Smith, Parys Haralson, Roderick Greenand Ray McDonaldand those guys run well."
Haralson, an outside linebacker, leads the club with three sacks while Green has two. The third-year player out of Tennessee is coming into his own after starting 11-of-16 games a year ago and finishing with 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks. A torn pectoral muscle limited him to just seven games as a rookie but Haralson appears to have made a successful transition from college defensive end to outside linebacker in Nolan's and Mike Singletary's 3-4.
One break the Patriots will get is they won't have to deal with Manny Lawson, Haralson's partner on the other side. Lawson, a first-round pick in 2006, is nursing a hamstring injury and Nolan said he wouldn't play. That could mean some playing time for Tully Banta-Cain, the former Patriot who's been inactive each game thus far this season.
"They have different fronts and guys in that can play different positions," Koppen said of the Niners various personnel. "They move around and they all have the ability to do different things. You just have to be ready for everything."
Cassel held his weekly media session on Thursday and was asked if he'd like to get Randy Mossmore involved in the offense. Moss had four catches for just 25 yards in the Patriots 38-13 loss to Miami in Week 3, and there's been some concern regarding the wideout's mindset with Brady out of the picture. Cassel, for one, isn't feeling any additional pressure in that regard.
"You always like to get Randy involved, but I really don't have much to do with that," Cassel said. "I just have to go through my reads and let the coaches worry about putting together the game plans and figuring out ways to get Randy involved."
The Patriots inability to get the ball downfield to their top deep threat has also led to some unrest, but Cassel also deflected those concerns.
"Not as a young quarterback," Cassel said when asked if he was tempted to just throw it up and let Moss make a play. "You have to go through your reads. You can't be throwing into double coverage and getting into bad habits."
Vince Wilfork made a pit stop during his bye weekend to Lantana, Fla., where he had his number 75 retired at his alma mater, Santaluces High School.
"It was nice," he said. "We flew down and I said a few words. It really didn't dawn on me what it meant tome until it actually happened. I thought about what I was doing and you have like 120 people trying out for a high school team and you're retiring one number. It made it real special for me."
The Patriots practice participation report remained mostly the same on Thursday with Eric Alexander(hamstring), Lewis Sanders(hamstring) and Kelley Washington(ankle) missing their second straight day, but wide receiver Wes Welkerwas limited with a groin injury. San Francisco lists tackle Jonas Jennings(shoulder) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer(knee) as out.