After making a statement in Week 14, the Patriots have another tough task on their hands in Week 15 when they host the 9-3-1 San Francisco 49ers in front of a national audience on Sunday night.
Smith, just 23, is closing in on the single-season sack record, with 19.5 sacks through 13 games. He exploded onto the NFL scene in 2011 with 14 sacks as a rookie, narrowly being edged out by Von Miller for defensive rookie of the year honors.
While the buzz surrounding Smith this week isn't as loud as it was for Watt last week, the 49ers star is still a tremendous challenge for the Patriots' offensive line. His production speaks for itself, and he’s helped out by a front seven that can be simply overwhelming.
Beyond Smith, veteran Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman make this defense one of the most feared in the league. The unit is fast, aggressive, physical and unrelenting in its pursuit of runners in the open field.
Though the Patriots made it look easy against a stingy Texans defense in Week 14, Tom Brady and his offense must be at their best this week.
The same goes for their defense, as Colin Kaepernick has infused San Francisco with an element of dual-threat quarterback play, showcasing his talents as both a passer and a runner.
Like the Patriots, the 49ers are a complete team. This game has the makings of an extremely competitive battle, and here’s what we’ll be watching for:
1. Protecting Brady. As we mentioned, Aldon Smith is more than a one-man wrecking crew, but the Patriots have to find a way to slow him down. He’s capable of changing the course of a game, and he’s the latest in a string of immensely talented pass-rushers the Pats have faced in 2012. The offensive line continues to show up and do its part, and will once again be counted on to keep Tom Brady clean. The Patriots relied on a quick passing game in Week 14 to counter the Texans' pressure and might do so again this Sunday.
2. Slowing Kaepernick. Not only is Kaepernick the most athletic quarterback the Patriots have faced in 2012, he also has the most designed runs called for him by coordinator Greg Roman. An already potent running game got better when he stepped in under center, and he’s racked up a 50-yard run in each of the past two weeks. Whether it’s bringing pressure to force him into poor decisions or shadowing Kaepernick with a linebacker to prevent scrambles, the Pats must find a way to slow down this second-year playmaker.
3. Field-position battle. How good is 49ers punter Andy Lee? He set the NFL single-season record for net punting back in 2011, which is not only a testament to his leg but also the coverage units in San Francisco. Few teams are better in winning the field position battle on a consistent basis than San Francisco and New England, and this will be a point of emphasis on Sunday night. The 49ers have a talented punter and kicker, and good coverage units and returners, too.
4. Physicality level. In describing the 49ers on Wednesday, Bill Belichick begin his assessment like this: “They’re a very physical football team.” Indeed, this might be the most physical team in football, and the Patriots must match that physicality. The 49ers' offensive line is full of strong-bodied players, and they love to set the tempo in the running game. The 49ers have made strong offenses look vulnerable with their physicality, and the Patriots must be ready to handle that style of play and equalize it.
5. Wide receiver depth. While Deion Branch was added this week, the Patriots are still one injury away from being down to just three wideouts. Branch would appear to be recovered from a hamstring injury that led to his recent release, but both Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd continue to be limited in practice. This is a factor to watch Sunday -- and going forward, as well.