On paper, this match-up between the 7-2 Patriots and the 1-8 49ers seems to be awfully lop-sided. San Francisco has the lowest win total in the NFL besides the Cleveland Browns, who are win-less. The Patriots are tied for the second best record in NFL with the Chiefs and Raiders. New England is traveling to San Francisco after suffering a tough, last second loss to the Seahawks on Sunday night football while the 49ers are coming off a loss against the Cardinals. Despite the difference in win totals, there are still match-ups in this game that could help shape the outcome of it. With that being said, one of those is the battle between Trey Flowers and Joe Staley.
Staley is a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time second team All-Pro left tackle who has played his entire 10 year career with the 49ers. He has been regarded as one of the better left tackles in all of football who still manages to play at a high level despite now being in his thirties. Flowers is a second year pro out of Arkansas who didn't play much in his rookie season because of a knee injury. In his second year however, Flowers has stayed healthy and flashed great pass rush potential at times, including having four sacks in the past two games. He started last weekend at right defensive end and is expected to draw another start against the 49ers.
With Jabaal Sheard reportedly going to be a healthy scratch, Flowers is expected to see the same amount of work he did last weekend (played in 61 of 70 snaps). That includes a lot of Staley, who has played decently this season but perhaps not as well as most are expected to seeing from him. According to Pro Football Focus, Staley is 44th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in pass blocking (65.3 grade out of 100). Staley also has a 0.0 passing yards differential, meaning the 49ers average the same amount of passing yards when he is on the field as opposed to when he is off the field (5.73 yards). Delving deeper, Staley actually has the fifth worst net passing yards over average among offensive tackles (-254.04) and ranks near the bottom in net passing yards over average per pass (-0.84).
In run blocking, Staley is not much of a difference maker either it would seem. He only has a 0.4 rushing yards differential with the 49ers garnering 4.80 yards per carry when he is on the field and 4.76 yards per carry when he isn't. Going a little more in depth, Staley ranks in the middle of the pack with a -65.89 net rushing yards over average and a -0.25 net rushing yards over average per run. Despite all of that, PFF has Staley ranked as the fifth best offensive tackle in run blocking with a 84.4 grade on the season. Overall, Staley has been about average at the tackle position with deficiencies across the board.
For Flowers, he has generated sacks over the past two games but hasn't necessarily been a big difference maker across the board. He has -0.06 passing yards differential (6.50 yards when on the field, 6.44 yards when off) and a 0.04 rushing yards differential (3.83 yards when on the field, 3.87 when off the field). For rushing, he actually has a 39.57 net rushing yards over average and a 0.43 net rushing yards over average per run. In pass rush, Flowers has a -4.87 net passing yards over average and a -0.03 net passing yards over average per rush attempt. PFF has Flowers as the 53rd best edge defender in pass rush (out of 105) with a 71.6 grade and as the 49th best in pass defense with a 70.6 grade.
Coming out of college, Flowers was seen as a raw but high-ceiling type of pass rushing prospect. He used his strength to beat his blocker(s) while still learning the basics of it. He was viewed as one of the best run defending ends coming out as he had the ability to shed blocks more easily. We have seen this season that Flowers is certainly improving at getting after the quarterback on pass plays and be able to get around the edge quicker. That'll be a key for Staley, trying to keep Flowers from getting outside and around on pass plays while making sure Flowers can't seal the edge too quickly on outside run plays.
With the Patriots getting solid production out of their interior defensive line with Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, we could see Chip Kelly and the 49ers try to bounce more runs to the outside. In their fast-tempo offense, establishing the run will be important for San Francisco, But Staley has struggled more-so in pass blocking, where Flowers has looked especially good over the past couple of games. Perhaps the most important phase of this match-up will be the first couple of seconds after the ball is snapped as Flowers has developed a good first step and uses his physicality to set the tone. Flowers doesn't necessarily "wow" with his speed, but he has become quicker with space and with angles of pursuit.
And despite going up against a mobile quarterback like Colin Kaepernick, Flowers showed well against another mobile gun-slinger in Russell Wilson last weekend. Both teams boast week offensive lines with a limited run game. Flowers has a tougher match-up this weekend against Staley as opposed to George Fant. The 49ers have given up 21 sacks this season, which is right in the middle of the pack amongst NFL teams. That can be attributed to (at least in some extent) to Kaepernick's ability to move around in the pocket and take off with the ball when needed. Again, containing the edge to prevent Kaepernick from slipping outside will be important for Flowers.
Overall, this will be an interesting match-up as the steady veteran will face some young blood in a battle all day. Staley's play has slipped this season but he is still regarded as one of the more trust-worthy left tackles in the game. Flowers is getting hot at the right time and will be in for a tough match-up. While it may not be highlighted much during the game, make sure to keep an eye out for this as the game progresses.