By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Throughout the week, Patriots players and coaches have emphasized what a matchup nightmare the San Francisco 49ers are. From wide receivers who can turn into running backs, to tight ends who can turn into fullbacks, and fullbacks who can turn into wide receivers, every player on the field is a threat at all times. Combine that with Kyle Shanahan's creativity and the Patriots defense will have their hands full.
On the other side of the ball, the Niners have a number of young, athletic players at all three levels. Cam Newton and the rest of the offense will need to be quicker and more precise in their decision making, or it could be another long afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Let's get into some of the key matchups to watch on Sunday...
When New England has the ball: Cam Newton vs. Fred Warner
Among Cam Newton's issues against the Broncos, among the most troubling was his apparent issue reading opposing linebackers. There were times when he seemed to miss opportunities to check out of run calls when guys were crowding the box. In the passing game, he hesitated or didn't throw the ball at all to open receivers in the middle of the field, in spots where it looked like he was overestimating a lurking linebacker underneath.
Things won't get any easier for him with week with Fred Warner in the middle of the San Francisco defense. The 2018 third-round pick is one of the rising young stars at the position, and will play a key role in the Niners' defensive scheme on Sunday.
"Warner’s a quality football player, a smart, instinctive player," Bill Belichick told reporters on Wednesday. "[He] does a good job of recognizing and getting to the ball quickly. He’s a good tackler, has got good range."
That's an idea skillset for defending Newton, especially in the passing game. Warner's instincts allow him to go from hanging in a passing lane to pursuing a scramble incredibly quickly, and he has the athleticism to close the gap if he gets beat initially. Newton will need to be aware of where Warner is on the field at all times, and Josh McDaniels will need to figure out a way to call plays that keep him off-balance as much as possible.
When San Francisco has the ball: George Kittle vs. Patriots safeties
Despite facing a murderers row of tight ends to start the season, the Patriots have statistically been one of the best teams at defending the position this year. They've allowed the third-fewest catches per game (three), sixth-fewest yards per game (40), and third-fewest touchdowns per game (.2) through five games.
The key to their success has been in personnel. Over the last few years, the Patriots have loaded up on big, strong safeties- guys who can go punch-for-punch with tight ends at the line but not sacrifice too much speed up the field.
That group will face their biggest test of the on Sunday, in the Niners' George Kittle. Bill Belichick's manta has always been to "take away what the opponent does best," which in this case is a zone running game. The allocation of resources at the line means players will likely be asked to win one-on-one against Kittle down the field at times.
It's not going to be easy to do by any means, but the Patriots need to limit the big plays from Kittle to keep themselves in the ball game. Expect a similar strategy to the one we saw against Las Vegas, that held Darren Waller to just two garbage-time catches.
Happy National Tight End Day!
Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Jimmy Garoppolo
Sunday will be the 16th time Bill Belichick faces a quarterback he's previously coached, and just the third time he faces a QB he brought into the league as a draft pick or UDFA. He's 11-4 in those games, going 4-3 against Vinny Testaverde (who he coached in Cleveland), 5-1 against Drew Bledsoe, and 1-0 against each of the two guys he coached as rookies - Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel.
Will Garoppolo fair any better? Belichick is known to use every resource imaginable when preparing for a game, and he has hours and hours of practice film on Jimmy G at his disposal. Has the former second-round pick changed his game enough in the last three years to catch Belichick off guard? Will he become the first Belichick draft pick to win against the legendary coach? Or will this be another example where the student stays the student and the master stays the master?
For more on Sunday's matchup, check out the Patriots Preview Podcast below:
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].