Even with Cam Newton back under center, the New England Patriots’ offense had a bad day against the Denver Broncos in Week 6: the unit struggled to put positive plays together, turned the football over three times, and at the end of the day had scored only 12 points. As promising as the Patriots looked on the offensive side of the ball early on in the regular season, as bad was their performance coming out of their bye.
This week, another serious challenge awaits in a San Francisco 49ers defense that is ranked 11th in the league in scoring while giving up 20.5 points per game. The unit coordinated by Robert Saleh also is ranked in the top third among all NFL defenses when looking at advanced statistics: it is ninth with a success rate of 43.7 percent, as well as eleventh in both EPA (0.014) and DVOA (-2.0%). Long story short, the 49ers have a good defense.
How will the Patriots be able to find success against it, especially considering that they might have a full week of on-field preparation for the first time since before their Week 3 contest against the Las Vegas Raiders? Let’s find out.
Take advantage of scramble opportunities
With Cam Newton arriving in New England earlier this offseason, the team transformed its offense away from the Tom Brady-led attack of the last two decades to incorporate more run-based principles to take advantage of the new QB1’s skillset. Going up against the 49ers on Sunday, and with a full week of practice for a change, the Patriots should again have their fare of quarterback-based run concepts in their game plan.
Just ask Kyle Posey of Niners Nation, who told Pats Pulpit earlier this week that “a quarterback with the slightest ounce of mobility has given this defense problems over the past two seasons, so I’d imagine we see a game plan similar to Week 1, where the Patriots ran Cam Newton a ton.”
Opening weekend is actually a good starting point not just as it relates to New England, but the 49ers as well. They went up against the Arizona Cardinals and another hyper-athletic passer capable of creating yards on the ground: Kyler Murray, who actually finished the contest with 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. While a few of them were scripted runs, Murray did most of his damage on scrambles.
The following play is a good example of that, and shows where Cam Newton could find some success:
Arizona approached the second down in a pistol formation with Murray (#1) faking a hand-off before trying to advance the ball with his right arm. However, the play started to break down when defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (#99) used a spin move to get off his block. At that point, Murray started to trust his instincts and took off — and with the nearest possible contain players either accounted for playing 15 yards off, the former first overall draft pick found plenty of room to take advantage of.
The 49ers, of course, will invest resources in order to keep Newton in the pocket and from breaking off big runs like Murray did. However, the Patriots’ quarterback needs to have the awareness to exploit potential openings and take off as a runner if he can see daylight — something San Francisco might provide for him based on some of the weaknesses Robert Saleh’s defense has shown in this area through the years.
Dust off the old Week 2 game plan
Before arriving in San Francisco via the Jacksonville Jaguars, Robert Saleh spent three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks — winning Super Bowl 48 as the team’s defensive quality control coach. His time with the organization still has an impact on him to this day, as a look at his defensive scheme shows: the 49ers’ coverage is based on the same principles as Seattle’s, meaning that the unit runs a lot of Cover 3 zone in different variations.
The Patriots are, of course, familiar with this type of defense from their Week 2 game against the Seahawks. While the team eventually lost 35-30 after failing to hit the end zone from one yard out on the game’s final play, it did have its best offensive performance of the season and gained 464 yards of offense while converting 58 percent of third downs.
New England was able to do that by finding weaknesses in Seattle’s coverage that Cam Newton exploited well, especially by connecting with Julian Edelman who had eight catches for 179 yards by the time the game had ended. Newton and Edelman were able to find holes in the Cover 3 scheme, like they did on the following 26-yard connection in the third quarter:
The Seahawks are in a match variation of Cover 3 that has the boundary cornerback lined up in man coverage on the receiver opposite him. The other two deep-field defenders — the safety in the middle and the field cornerback — are responsible for their thirds of the field as if in a traditional Cover 3, meanwhile. The area behind the boundary cornerback is therefore vulnerable to be exploited, which is exactly where Edelman (#11) is going on his crosser. Box safety Jamal Adams (#33) is responsible for this part of the field in Seattle’s coverage, but slow to react to Edelman’s over route.
San Francisco also likes to use this variation of Cover 3, as can be seen on the first defensive play from their Week 6 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams:
The cornerback to the short side of the field — Emmanuel Moseley (#41) — follows his assignment, while the other defensive backs are playing a Cover 3 zone. L.A. is actually trying to stressing the same parts of the field as the Patriots did, but wide receiver Cooper Kupp (#10) is ultimately unable to shake the hook/curl defender playing the same basic role as Adams did on the play above. The idea behind the coverage is the same as the Seahawks’ in that it accounts for the vertical routes and is no true zone look.
Just like Seattle, of course, San Francisco will not rely entirely on zone or man-based coverage principles: Saleh and his unit will try to mix things up to challenge Newton on a down-to-down basis. The question will be whether the Patriots’ QB and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be up to the challenge. As they have shown against the Seahawks, however, they can be.
Accordingly, McDaniels should try to bring back a similar approach in the passing game that stresses the holes in the 49ers’ Cover 3 and creates favorable matchups.
Hold onto the football
This is a pretty obvious talking point, but one that needs to be repeated after New England turned the football over a combined seven times over the last two games and 10 times in total so far this season. The Patriots, based on their postgame statements after the aforementioned loss to the Broncos, know that taking care of the ball will be a key ingredient to improving as an offense after back-to-back defeats.
“I think for us the first thing the number one thing is protecting the football. That’s what it comes down to. The turnovers, those are drive killers and those are game killers. And it starts with me,” said Cam Newton last Sunday after throwing a pair of interceptions.
The 49ers defense, meanwhile, has not been outstanding in terms generating turnovers. They have taken the football away on six different occasions so far, and were able to score three field goals off of them and run out the clock on another. Still, New England needs to take care of the ball in order not to give its opponent any short fields or otherwise put it in favorable situations.
New England knows the drill when it comes to taking care of the football, now it is about showing that the last two weeks — and the season as a whole so far, to be quite honest — are more aberration than the norm.
Get the tight ends involved
While the final stat line may not have looked impressive, the Patriots’ tight end group actually had its most productive game of the season against Denver: top option Ryan Izzo finished the game with three catches for 38 yards, even though one of them ended with a fumble. Number two Devin Asiasi, meanwhile, was involved more prominently as well even though he once more did not pop up on the stat sheet.
Against San Francisco, however, this might change. While the 49ers are not necessarily a bad defense against tight ends, the Patriots might be able to find some favorable schematic matchups against the defense — as have other teams: the position has combined to catch 24 passes during the first six weeks of the season versus Robert Saleh’s unit, gaining a combined 261 yards in the process and scoring a touchdown.
With the 49ers likely trying to limit the Patriots’ running game, the team might find some success with its tight ends in play-action situations and on routes stressing the seams of the Cover 3 defense mentioned above. That is exactly what the Rams did, for example, on the following 31-yard pass from quarterback Jared Goff to tight end Tyler Higbee:
The Rams’ offense is aligned in a heavy set on that first down play, with Goff (#16) under center and two in-line tight ends — one of them Higbee (#89) — on the right end of the line of scrimmage. At the snap, both release into patterns as the hand-off to running back Malcolm Brown (#34) is faked. The fake hand-off plus some solid blocking up front gives Goff enough time to survey the field, and his receivers time to get open.
Higbee is able to do just that on a corner route on the right boundary side of the formation going against linebacker Dre Greenlaw (#57). With Greenlaw initially playing as if going against a blocker rather than a receiver, he was quickly trailing his assigned coverage responsibility, and the Rams took advantage.
While neither Izzo nor Asiasi are on the same level as Higbee as receiving options, the underlying idea is the same: create some defensive hesitation through misdirection principles, and get the tight ends matched up on linebackers. The position group has so far disappointed for the Patriots, but Asiasi’s quiet growth could be used as a foundation to get him involved more versus San Francisco — and possibly get him some touches for the first time in his professional career.