Scouting Report: What you have to know about Patriots-Niners

November 19, 2016 - 7:35 am
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[caption id="attachment_93988" align="alignright" width="350"]This sets up to be a big game for LeGarrette Blount. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images) This sets up to be a big game for LeGarrette Blount. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)[/caption] Here's everything you need to know for this Sunday's game between the Patriots and Niners at Levi's Stadium. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL The numbers are really super simple: the Niners run defense is apocalyptically bad, and a sizable reason why San Francisco is allowing a league-worse 31.4 points per game. The Niners allow an average of 180.4 rushing yards per game. In four of their nine contests this year, San Francisco's opponents have run for 190 yards or more on the ground, with the high-water mark (or low-water mark, depending on your perspective) coming when the Bills had 313 rushing yards in one game earlier this season. The numbers were better last week against Arizona, as the Cards could only muster 80 yards on the ground in a narrow win. (The San Francisco run defense narrowly avoided the honor of being the first team in NFL history to avoid yielding 100 rushing yards or more in seven straight games.) Bill Belichick said earlier this week that the biggest difference between that game and the previous eight was the fact that the Niners did a better job tackling. On the other side, LeGarrette Blount (182 carries, 678 yards, a league-leading 12 TDs) is going to get the bulk of the carries for New England, and given the breakdown, if he doesn't get the ball 20-plus times, something is either wrong with Blount or the New England coaching staff has gotten too cute and tried to overthink things. The wild card here is Dion Lewis, who made the trip and could see his first action of the year. If he does see playing time, it might be wise to temper expectations (at least initially) for a few reasons, including the fact the Patriots still have a placeholder in James White. Regardless, this matchup is a big edge for New England. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL The Patriots' passing game is one of the best in the league; even with Tom Brady missing the first four games of the season, New England is at or near the top of NFL in most major passing categories. Brady (121-for-166, 73 percent, 1,635 yards, 12 TDs, 1 INT, 125.5 passer rating) won't have Rob Gronkowski in the lineup Sunday, so expect Martellus Bennett (38 catches, 47 targets, 504 yards, 4 TDs) to go wire-to-wire in this one. In addition, Julian Edelman (48 catches, 71 targets, 451 yards, 1 TD) will see an uptick in work for a few reasons, not the least of which is that the Niners are bad at stopping No. 1 receivers. (More on that shortly.) And no Chris Hogan will mean more work for either Danny Amendola (17 catches, 21 targets, 203 yards, 3 TDs) or Malcolm Mitchell (7 catches, 15 targets, 95 yards) as the best deep threat. On the other side of the ball, the Niners are better against the pass than they are against the run, allowing an average of 249 passing yards per contest (14th in the league). Using some Football Outsiders' numbers, they have some very specific strengths and weakness: San Francisco is one of the best teams in the league in defending tight ends (eighth-best, per FO), but one of the worst at slowing No. 1 wide receivers (31st, per FO), and they're not great at defending No. 2 receivers (23rd). We know the Patriots are going to tweak their offense because Gronkowski won't be on the field, but this could mean a bigger game than usual for the likes of Edelman and Amendola. WHEN THE NINERS RUN THE BALL This is where the Niners are going to make their stand. San Francisco is seventh in the league when it comes to running the ball, averaging 116.9 rushing yards per game; the Niners have gone over 100 yards rushing in six of their nine contests this year, with a season-high 160 yards on the ground in a home loss to the Bucs last month. Carlos Hyde has struggled with a shoulder injury as of late, but is still San Francisco's best back with 122 carries for 443 yards and six touchdowns. The Niners will also get some quality yards on the ground from Colin Kaepernick (32 carries, 228 yards, 1 TD). As for New England, it is 14th in the league against the run, allowing 101 rushing yards per contest. Despite the fact that the Patriots allowed 96 yards last week against the Seahawks, it was the most disappointing effort of the season, considering the fact that Seattle came into the contest as one of the worst rushing teams in the league. The defense needs a bounceback week, and a physical, edgy attitude when it comes to stopping the run would be an excellent place to start for New England. WHEN THE NINERS PASS THE BALL San Francisco has rolled out two different quarterbacks to start the year in Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, but neither one of them has found any sort of consistency in the passing game over the first nine games. The Niners have the 30th ranked passing attack in the league, averaging 191 passing yards per game. (Before Pats fans get too cocky, the Bills are 31st at 189 yards per game, and Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw for 246 yards and a touchdown in a 16-0 win over New England in October.) After taking over for Gabbert, Kaepernick has started the last four games, and is 70-for-132 (53 percent) for 938 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 82.2. Jeremy Kerley (40 catches, 71 targets, 424 yards, 3 TDs) has distinguished himself as the No. 1 option in the passing game, while Quinton Patton (29 catches, 49 targets, 345 yards) and Torrey Smith (17 catches, 39 targets, 243 yards, 2 TDs) have also flashed at times. New England is 19th in the league against the pass, yielding an average of 260 yards per game. The big key here is whether or not the Niners can figure out a way to attack the back end of the Patriots' depth chart at cornerback. Smith is a savvy veteran who has burned the Patriots in the past (more on that in a minute), while Kerley and Patton are probably more third and fourth options in the passing game than the first and second ones they're playing here. One thing to keep an eye on is that New England has been vulnerable at times to good tight ends; the FO stats have them 25th in the league when it comes to defending tight ends, who have averaged almost eight catches and 55 yards a game this year against the Patriots. That means tight ends Garrett Celek (16 catches, 215 yards) and Vance McDonald (15 catches, 276 yards, 3 TDs) could be in for more touches than usual Sunday afternoon. SPECIAL TEAMS Kicker Phil Dawson, 41, is a remarkable 13-for-14 from the field and 20-for-20 on extra points. Punter Bradley Pinion is pretty good, with a 45.3 average (21st) and a 40.1 net (17th). They have not had a punt blocked this season. Kerley is the primary punt returner (9.2 yards per chance on 13 returns), while they've had a handful of players work as kick returners, led by Chris Davis (21.5 average on six returns). Overall, the Niners have averaged 20.5 yards per kick return (tied for 24th) and 8.6 yards per punt return (20th). They do not have a return for touchdown this season. The Patriots look like they've started to tighten things up when it comes to special teams. Stephen Gostkowski hit a 30-yard field goal and was 3-for-3 on extra points against the Seahawks. On the season, he's now 12-for-15 on field goals and 27-for-29 on extra points. Punter Ryan Allen's 44.1 average is 27th, while his net of 41.2 is 10th overall. (That net total is crept up nicely over the last few weeks, which suggests the punt coverage units have done better and better.) There's still a whole host of punt and kick returners, so it's probably a better use of time to simply list the team totals: 20.6 per kick return (23rd overall) and 8.5 per punt return (21st). They do not have a blocked punt or return for a touchdown this year. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… Bill Belichick decides to have Nate Ebner deliver a pooch punt as a surprise onside. (Seriously, almost nothing about that Patriots-Eagles game last year made sense, including the multiple special teams gaffes. In hindsight, maybe it was a tribute to Chip Kelly, who clearly psyched out Belichick in some form or fashion that caused the Patriots' coach to pull some weird stuff that afternoon.) THE NINERS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Patriots can contain Kaepernick and the rest of the San Francisco running game and force him to throw consistently. BY THE NUMBERS, via Ryan Hannable (tie) — 18: The 49ers have 18 turnovers in nine games, turning the ball over at least once in every game this season. Since 2001 in the regular season, when winning the turnover battle the Patriots are 127-9. 400: San Francisco has allowed over 400 yards of total offense in four straight games. Since 2001 in the regular season, when out-gaining the opposition, the Patriots are 130-19. UNDER-THE-RADAR PERFORMER: Smith is questionable with this game because a shoulder issue, but when he's been healthy, the 27-year-old has always put up decent numbers. In his seventh season in the NFL, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder isn't Kaepernick's first option, but he's the best home-run hitter on the roster who has shown a knack for getting behind the New England defense and coming away with big plays. In five career contests against New England (two regular-season games and three postseason games), Smith has 19 catches on 38 targets for 409 yards (21.5 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Someone who has to be accounted for on every single play. QUOTE OF NOTE: "We're Facebook friends. We spend a lot of time online together." — Kelly — who presumably joking — about his relationship with Belichick. The two have been friends for the last several years, ever since Kelly was at UNH PREDICTION: It's going to be interesting to see how the Patriots respond in this one — as we referenced earlier this week, how New England reacts November or December losses can ultimately provide some real insight into whether they're truly championship caliber. Our prediction? This one is relatively easy. Blount tops 100 yards for the fourth time this season — tying his rookie mark — Brady keeps a steady hand on the wheel and the Patriots come away with a 38-14 win.