The New England Patriots Week 7 matchup with the San Francisco 49ers isn’t quite a must-win game, but it’s very very important. The Patriots come into the game with a 2-3 record and currently sit at third in the AFC East. That being said, winning the division is still very much in reach. The Patriots are only one game back from first place in the loss column (the first place Bills are 4-2).
Looking ahead to the clash with the 49ers, we’ll tell you the three Patriots’ to watch, and the most intriguing matchups.
Players to Watch
It’s been well documented that Cam Newton played his worst game as a Patriot last Sunday against the Broncos. Newton seemed to be late in his decision making against Denver. Newton did make some nice plays with his legs late in the game to give the Patriots a chance to win, but it wasn’t enough.
Cam Newton didn’t play his best football yesterday, but he made a couple of very nice plays with his legs in the fourth quarter to give them a shot to win.— Pats Buzz (@PatsBuzz) October 19, 2020
It was one of the few positive offensive takeaways from this game. pic.twitter.com/lfZ4F9fEdD
Despite his Week 6 struggles we don’t expect those same issues to persist throughout the season. The lack of recent practice reps with his wideouts likely contributed to some of the timing issues. Additionally, the offensive line missing three starters and the overall challenge for the receiving core to regularly create separation certainly played a factor. Even with all that Newton said he needs to play better and we certainly think he will, starting on Sunday.
Through five games of the 2020 season, it’s still hard to gauge where N’Keal Harry fits in on the Patriots offense. We’d personally like to see him used more as a big slot guy, but he still gets most of his snaps out wide.
In addition to lining up out wide, he’s also rarely being targeted downfield. According to Pro Football Reference, his average depth of target is only 6.6 yards. For reference, in his rookie season, his average depth of target was 9.3 yards. We’d like to see Josh McDaniels and Newton mix in some downfield looks for Harry. He showed last year, albeit in limited targets, that he can make some of those back-shoulder catches.
Separation is never going to be a huge strength of Harry’s but there are examples of players using their size and strength as a substitute for elite separation. We should mention that for Harry to be one of those players he needs to be a much more physical route runner. Ultimately, on Sunday, we’d like to see the Patriots sprinkle in some of those downfield passes for Harry to go along with the screens and other quick-hit routes.
Chase Winovich had a very strong start to the season, but last week he saw a major decrease in playing time, only seeing 22 snaps. Some of that had to do with his run defense. That was the biggest question surrounding his skill set coming into his second season Run defense is also what limited Winovich in his rookie season. His pass rush is no issue, in fact, he’s been dominant in the pass rush this season. Some of the Patriots’ biggest defensive plays this season have come via a Winovich pass rush. Unfortunately, his run defense has been inconsistent.
If Winovich plays on run downs this Sunday, you can bet Kyle Shanahan will target him on some of the run schemes they draw up. How he handles that will something to watch on Sunday.
Most Intriguing Matchups
Patriots Offensive Line vs. 49ers Defensive Front
One of the biggest reasons for the offensive struggles last week was an injury-plagued offensive line. Fortunately, New England will receive reinforcements this Sunday. Shaq Mason is off the COVID reserve list, and David Andrews is off the injury reserve list. The only bad news is that starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor is now heading onto the injured reserve. That leaves a likely starting offensive line consisting of Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, Andrews, Michael Onwenu, and Mason. When healthy, or even mostly healthy, the Patriots have a top offensive line in the league. Below is an example of the running lanes the offensive line periodically opened up prior to the uncharacteristic Week 6 performance.
The Patriots big guys upfront will be going up against a good but injury-plagued 49ers defensive front. The group is headlined by Arik Armstead. Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones, and Kerry Hyder make up the rest of the starting group. San Francisco allows the 10th fewest rush yards per game. Where the 49ers the injuries really took a toll was their pass rush. The 49ers haven’t been near as good in that area as they were last year. Hyder leads the team in sacks with 3.5. Overall this should be a good matchup in the trenches, especially in the run game. Although, barring a complete collapse of the offensive line, Newton won’t have to face a lot of pressure.
Patriots Passing Attack vs. 49ers Secondary
We’ve talked a lot about New England’s passing attack already in the sections about Harry and Newton, but we haven’t yet touched on the 49ers secondary. Corner Jason Verrett has been elite in the absence of Richard Sherman. According to Pro Football Reference, Verrett has held quarterbacks to a 33.3% completion rate when targeting him. Watching him against the Rams was very impressive.
Fellow corner, Emmanuel Moseley has also been really good. Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have been solid at safety, but Tartt is questionable to play on Sunday. Linebackers, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are two more assets for the 49ers pass defense.
The Patriots will need a productive game from every wide receiver on Sunday, but getting a struggling Julian Edelman going would be massive. If Newton and the Patriots can be effective and efficient against this secondary, it would provide them a huge confidence boost.
Patriots Run Defense vs. 49ers Rushing Attack
With Kyle Shanahan at the helm, the 49ers have had a ton of success attack defenses using a zone run scheme. Even without Raheem Mostert, who’s out with injury, the 49ers rushing attack is still something to be concerned about. This is especially true when looking at the up and down success of the Patriots run defense. With Mostert out, Jerick McKinnon will probably receive a lot of action. Don’t sleep on rookie Jamycal Hasty either. He got some action last Sunday and he flashed good potential on film.
The 49ers have a good run-blocking offensive line, but it should be noted that Trent Williams isn’t guaranteed to play Sunday.
The good news for the Patriots front seven is that just like the offensive line, they have backup coming. Byron Cowart and Derek Rivers were removed from the COVID reserve list. Plus, Josh Uche and Beau Allen were removed from the injured reserve. Run stuffers like Ja’Whaun Bentley, Lawrence Guy, and Cowart will be of huge importance in this one. We are also curious to see how the Patriots match the 49ers run formations. Will they play fewer defensive backs? This is a matchup, like the Patriots passing attack vs. the 49ers secondary, that goes against the Patriots on paper.
Bonus: Bill Belichick’s Game plan vs. Jimmy Garoppolo
Bill Belichick knows Jimmy Garoppolo very well after coaching him for three years. That should come in handy when drawing up a game plan to beat him. In four games this season Garoppolo has been solid but not great. He has thrown for 735 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions on 63.6%.
Garoppolo’s key weapons, the best tight in the NFL George Kittle and great young receiver Deebo Samuel, will present a major challenge for Belichick. How he accounts for them is even more important than the matchup with Garoppolo. The Patriots have been great against tight ends this season, but this is their toughest test yet. We believe Belichick and the Patriots secondary can, for the most part, limit the 49ers passing attack.