ReFo: 49ers @ Patriots, Week 15
Ben Stockwell takes a closer look at one of the best games of season 2012, and finds good reason to praise the play of Michael Crabtree.
ReFo: 49ers @ Patriots, Week 15
After a devastatingly disappointing game on Monday Night Football against the Houston Texans last week, our second shot at a great game from Foxborough delivered — and it delivered in spades. In slippery conditions there was some slick execution, and some slack ball handling, as the Patriots spotted the 49ers a four-touchdown lead before roaring back with four touchdowns of their own in less than 15 minutes to tie the game.
Yet another Bill Belichick decision on fourth-and-short late in the game is sure to spark more debate, but credit must go to a San Francisco team that rebounded from a situation in which many more teams would have capitulated, having surrendered such a commanding lead in so short a space of time. As a potential Super Bowl preview this game has more than whetted the appetite of every NFL fan for what is to come in the final sprint for playoff seeding before the real business gets underway in only three week’s time.
This game had ramifications for bye week seeding on both sides of the bracket, so here is our view on some of the key performances from Sunday night.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Receivers Go Deep
The wide receiver corps for the San Francisco 49ers has in previous years been perceived to be holding the offense back, but last night those receivers played a crucial role in driving this team forward. They showed the way early as Randy Moss celebrated his return to New England with a long touchdown to open the scoring, getting behind rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard for the score as Colin Kaepernick fitted the throw in before Devin McCourty could get over the top of a seam to the inside of Moss’ route. Then Delanie Walker picked up the baton next as the 49ers capitalized on Dennard, who this time was hopelessly outnumbered in his zone. The star of the show though was Michael Crabtree (+2.7) who perfectly found the seam between the Patriots’ safeties and toughed it out to drive between the double hit for the score. It was also left to Crabtree to round out the display by exploiting a weak effort from Kyle Arrington to turn a quick hitch into a game-winning score. Crabtree is starting to create a habit of making pivotal plays and may just be turning onto a hot streak at exactly the right time for the 49ers as they look to go one step further than last season.
Deciphering the Brady Conundrum
One of the biggest questions on how to defend the likes of Tom Brady is whether you attack with the blitz or sit back and hope your base pass rush gets there. Well, for the 49ers the answer was clearly to trust your pass rush as they blitzed on ONLY 12 of Brady’s 69 drop-backs, and they were successful with either tactic. The key was to make the most of pressure, which they did by recording a sack on one in five of the drop-backs on which they recorded pressure, while collecting their pair of interceptions on plays where they didn’t pressure Brady. Customarily you’d think credit for maximizing the 49ers’ pass rush would go to the outside linebackers, but it was Ricky Jean-Francois (-0.4 pass rush) and Ray McDonald (+0.3 pass rush) who did just enough. It was the backup who came away with the most surprising pass rush play of the game, as he blew past the outside shoulder of Nate Solder for a crucial third-down sack which halted the Patriots’ momentum short of midfield. The Patriots’ quick passing neutralized the 49ers’ pass rush for much of the game, but when Brady held the ball (or was forced to) for more than 2.5 seconds his completion percentage plummeted to 32.8%, and his QB rating was a miniscule 26.2. A formula for others to repeat?
Ball Handling Miscues Go Unpunished
It’s not often that you get away with fumbling four snaps and bobbling another, but that is exactly the good fortune that befell Kaepernick (-1.3) and the 49ers this week. The conditions were far from favorable, but the frequency of the fumbled center-quarterback exchanges between Kaepernick and Jonathan Goodwin had to be alarming. However, the 49ers lost none of these fumbles as Kaepernick and Frank Gore fell on two apiece — in fact the 49ers even benefited from one, as Gore improvised brilliantly to turn a broken goal-line play into a score. The credit to Kaepernick from all of these errors is that he didn’t revert into his shell. He still went deep and allowed his receivers to make the plays that the running game couldn’t deliver. The 49ers will certainly be eager to avoid conditions like this again in the playoffs, and be praying to avoid the sort of rainstorm that accompanied the NFC Championship game last season should they clinch a home playoff game.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Mixed Day for the Offensive Line
Broadly speaking, the Patriots’ offensive line put forth a solid display against the 49ers’ stout defense. Along with the Patriots’ quick passing attack, they kept Brady relatively upright for the duration of the game and they extracted the sort of rushing average, 4.0 yards per carry, that few offenses are able to against the 49ers’ run defense. However, there were also moments that will raise concerns for this team moving forward. Left tackle Nate Solder may have yielded only one sack, a hit and a hurry, but the nature of those was concerning with each coming to his outside shoulder and extremely quickly. The early pressures conceded to Aldon Smith can easily be put down to him getting used to the sheer speed and physicality of the 49er brings off of the edge, but the speed and nature of the sack he conceded to the hardly speedy Jean-Francois has to be concerning. The play of Logan Mankins (+1.6 run block) and Ryan Wendell (+2.9 run block) against a stout interior run defense like the 49ers, however, has to be encouraging for the Patriots’ moving into the playoffs. This game went away from the script, but the Patriots’ offensive line continued to show that it can create running room against any defense.
Differing Rookie Progressions
The Patriots’ top two draft picks both came into this season with a fair deal of fanfare, but have both lost time this season due to injury which has somewhat dampened the hype. However, on their return to the field their form is heading in opposite directions, with Dont’a Hightower (+4.7) putting in his second highly graded game in as many weeks, while Chandler Jones (-2.1) continued to struggle on his return to the field. It is entirely possible that Jones has been rushed back and is not ready to contribute at this point, but his performances early in the season were absolutely pivotal to a New England defense that, in spite of its exceptional performance against Houston on Monday, is still fragile and inconsistent as it proved last night. Through missing two games, and most of another in Week 11, Jones has recorded only three hurries since the Patriots’ trip to London back in Week 8. The Patriots’ have the AFC East locked up and need help to get a bye week, but they desperately need Jones to be healthy for the playoffs or there will be an awful lot of pressure put on their linebackers to fill a void that no other pass rusher or edge defender on this defense is capable of filling.
McCourty – The New Ballhawk?
For the second week in a row Devin McCourty (+2.0) showed his ability to be a difference maker for the Patriots’ with a touchdown-saving interception on his own goal line. Just like his interception of Matt Schaub last week, this came on a throw down the middle of the field as the opposing quarterback failed to look McCourty far enough off of the route — in this case, McCourty easily robbed Randy Moss of his second touchdown of the game. It’s worth noting that McCourty was a step late getting to another seam route just minutes later, but with teams showing a willingness to look deep on New England, as evidenced by 22 deep targets on the Patriots in their past four games, his presence and ability to take passes away in the middle of the field is going to be crucial. However, if the Patriots have mix ups like the one that gifted Delanie Walker his score then teams shouldn’t necessarily be scared away from the deep ball by one interception per game from McCourty.
— Delanie Walker recorded a season high 48 snaps and only his fourth multiple catch game of the season.
— In playing 65 of the Patriots’ 68 defensive snaps, Dont’a Hightower recorded a career high, breaking his previous high of 61 from last Monday.
— He may have been held without a sack, but this was the sixth time that Aldon Smith has recorded six or more pressures (2 Ht, 4 Hu) in a game this season.
PFF Game Ball
When the 49ers were reeling it was Michael Crabtree who put them back on top in this game and re-set their course to victory.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.