6. How will the left side of New England’s line perform in pass protection?
Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins form a formidable duo on quarterback Tom Brady’s blind side. The two have combined to allow just four sacks on the season; however, they draw an especially difficult matchup tonight. 49ers right end Justin Smith is one of the strongest five-technique defensive linemen in the league; Smith excels in run defense and has recorded four sacks, six quarterback hits, and 21 pressures on the season.
On the same side, San Francisco rushes second-year player Aldon Smith from both two-and-three-point stances. Smith has sacked opposing quarterbacks a staggering 19.5 times on the season; he is on pace for 25 in total, which would be sufficient to break Michael Strahan’s single season sack record.
Disrupting Tom Brady has historically been the most effective way of beating the Patriots; the most difficult aspect of the game from New England’s perspective will be keeping Brady upright and allowing him time to dissect San Francisco’s coverages.
7. Can New England’s defense account for Colin Kaepernick’s mobility?
Colin Kaepernick has played extensively over San Francisco’s last five contests; on the season, he has completed 67.4% of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt. Perhaps more importantly in the context of tonight’s game, Kaepernick is noted for his marvelous athleticism; defending against dual-threat quarterbacks has traditionally been one weakness of New England’s defense.
In each of San Francisco’s last two contests, Kaepernick has rushed for a 50-yard gain. In order to protect the defensive backfield from having to cover San Francisco’s wide receivers for extended periods of time, the Patriots must prevent Kaepernick from escaping from the pocket and, consequently, earning his targets extra time to uncover themselves.
New England must set the edges effectively and force Kaepernick to beat the Patriots with his arm rather than with his legs. Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have had some success blitzing the quarterback this season; in particular, rushing Mayo from the edge may challenge Kaepernick’s mobility.
8. What kind of impact will running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James have?
With change-of-pace back Kendall Hunter on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon and short-yardage back Brandon Jacobs suspended for the remainder of the season, the 49ers are left with two potentially troublesome running backs: the ageless Frank Gore and explosive rookie second-round pick LaMichael James.
Gore excels rushing in all directions: on the season, he has been must effective running behind the interior of San Francisco’s offensive line (108 carries, 609 yards, 5.64 yards per attempt), but he has also gained 424 of his 1,033 yards on 104 carries rushing to the outside. Gore’s success inside behind the underrated combination of Mike Iupati (left guard), Jonatahn Goodwin (center), and Alex Boone (right guard) places a great burden on New England’s defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love; inside linebacker Brandon Spikes must also continue his excellent run defense.
LaMichael James was first active last week, rushing for 30 yards on eight attempts and adding one reception for 15 yards; his primary value comes from attacking the edges of the defense and contributing in the passing game.
9. Will Aqib Talib’s hip be a factor in defending against Michael Crabtree?
Last week, New England shifted away from their famous (infamous?) zone coverages in order to defend against Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson. Among the most intriguing elements of the defensive gameplan was how they employed recently-acquired cornerback Aqib Talib: before leaving the game with a hip injury, Talib was shadowing Johnson in man coverage.
Former tenth overall pick Michael Crabtree has improved every season since joining the NFL; this season, his 66 receptions and 761 yards both lead all of San Francisco’s receivers by a wide margin: 25 catches and 255 yards, respectively. Primary responsibility for defending against Crabtree will likely fall on Talib once again; how well Talib’s hip holds up will be a major storyline to follow.
Additionally, cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are also dealing with hamstring and knee injuries, respectively, which may affect their performances as well. On the bright side, San Francisco’s deep receiving corps took a hit when the 49ers ruled out Mario Manningham last night; Randy Moss should see more snaps in Manningham’s absence.
10. How will New England defend against athletic 49ers tight end Vernon Davis?
Former sixth overall pick Vernon Davis is having somewhat of a disappointing season this year – through twelve games, he has just 38 catches for 506 yards and five touchdowns – but his combination of speed and strength presents a unique challenge for New England’s defense, which has struggled to cover tight ends all season.
At 6’3” and 254 points, Davis ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the 2006 NFL Draft Combine; he also recorded a 42” vertical leap, a 10’8” broad jump, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 38 times. Davis recalls former Patriots first-round pick Ben Watson (6’3”, 258, 4.57, 35.5”, 10’3”, 34 reps) from a physical standpoint; he may be too fast for any of New England’s linebackers to run with downfield, and too physical for any of New England’s safeties to cover effectively.
Patrick Chung has been underutilized since returning three weeks ago from shoulder and hamstring injuries, having played in just 46 of New England’s 205 defensive snaps over the past three contests; however, he may represent their best option against Davis this week. Other potential defenders include Jerod Mayo and rookie Tavon Wilson, who has struggled in coverage on the season but may offer a sufficient combination of size and athleticism.