These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be Sunday against the Niners and the NFL’s top-rated defense? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan.
Share your thoughts on how the Pats should attack or defend the 49ers in the comments section.
Mike Reiss: Patriots must dictate tempo, physicality
What is the best offensive approach against a defense that ranks first in the NFL for fewest points allows (14.1), and second in the league in both rush defense (90.8 yards per game) and pass defense (184.7 yards per game)?
The first place to start is that there are no easy answers.
This is the toughest matchup the high-powered Patriots’ offense has faced this season. Yet what’s intriguing is that as potent as the 49ers are defensively, the Patriots match that explosiveness on offense, so it’s two forces colliding.
Which team will dictate that the game is played on its terms? That’s the main question this week in a game that could be played in sloppy weather conditions.
Tempo and physicality are the buzzwords this week for the Patriots.
They are often at their best when they play fast, and when doing so, making the running game a big part of what they do. On Monday night against the Texans, that was a winning formula, as the Patriots held up physically and established enough of a running presence early to open up play-action passing opportunities.
That same script will give the Patriots the best chance to be successful against a 49ers’ defense that deserves all the respect it gets.
Mike Rodak: Screen game will keep 49ers honest, create opportunities
In his Wednesday news conference, quarterback Tom Brady told reporters twice that the San Francisco 49ers' defense had "no real weaknesses." For someone who said he began studying this Sunday's opponent nearly three weeks ago, after Thanksgiving, his point is well-taken.
What are the Patriots to do, then? Well, they have two of the game's best pass-catchers in receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez, and that's where the Patriots offensive game-plan should start. If you're going to try to defeat the NFL's best defense, why not rely on your best players to do?
Something the Patriots could also incorporate into their offensive game-plan that hasn't been seen much this season is getting the running backs involved in the screen game. It's one way of keeping the end-of-the-line players on the 49ers defense honest, whether they are pass-rushing or setting the edge in the running game.
Releasing Danny Woodhead or Stevan Ridley into the flat, throwing to either off the play action, and mixing up draws, inside, and outside runs puts the 49ers' linebackers on notice. If the right plays can be mixed in at the right time, the Patriots should be able to stay a step ahead of the 49ers' thinking. Success in the screen game can also help draw safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, which could open up play-making opportunities for Welker and Hernandez.
Field Yates: Expect Patriots to follow the Rams' lead
Earlier this week, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he reached out to his brother John, the head coach of the Ravens, for some insight into facing the Patriots, who fell to the Ravens back in Week 3.
Belichick may opt to reach out to a coaching colleague of his own this week, as Rams coach Jeff Fisher -- a longtime friend of Belichick’s -- might be able to provide some wisdom into how to stop the 49ers.
After all, Fisher’s Rams have gone 1-0-1 against the 49ers this season, including a recent 16-13 win in overtime.
A call between Belichick and Fisher is probably unlikely, but he can still use the template of what Fisher’s team did to slow down the 49ers and try to emulate it this weekend.
St. Louis was able to contain the pass rush of San Francisco by devoting itself to running the football and using the quick, short passing game. The Rams used their own version of Wes Welker -- Danny Amendola -- to be an extension of the running game in Week 10. He caught 10 passes for 102 yards.
Welker is typically a heavy part of the Patriots’ offensive game plan, and look for that to continue to this weekend, as well as the Patriots testing the interior of the 49ers' defensive line.
Belichick has talked at times this year about studying how teams have been successful against their upcoming opponents. The formula that the Rams relied upon, which yielded success against a very good team, fits within the construct of what the Patriots already do well.
A commitment to running the football right at the heart of the Niners defense -- their front seven -- complemented by the short passing game, will set this team up for vertical plays down the field, and could prove to be a winning mix.