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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Ready for prime time?

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week: hosting the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night (NBC, 8:20 p.m.):

Mike: We thought we might be in for a classic last week when the Patriots hosted the Texans. It didn't unfold that way. Maybe we get the classic this week in a matchup between the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense (49ers, average of 14.1 points per game allowed) and the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense (Patriots, average of 36.3 points scored per game). Last week, we touched on the tough spot of the Texans playing their third road game in three weeks and the effects that can have. What impact do you think the cross-country flight has on the 49ers?

Tedy: I think it is a factor and all coaches know it is, going 3,000 miles coast to coast to play a football game. A few years back, in 2008, we had back-to-back West Coast games and Bill Belichick had us stay over the entire week because of how taxing it can be. You're dealing with a time change and jet lag, and then you have to go play a football game. The older you are, sometimes it hurts you more, because your recuperation process isn't as good as when you were in the early- to mid-20s.

Mike: One of the big stories in San Francisco was how head coach Jim Harbaugh handled his quarterback decision. Starter Alex Smith was playing well until he was sidelined with a concussion. Second-year player Colin Kaepernick came on and played well, and then when Smith returned to full health, Kaepernick kept the job.

Tedy: I initially said that I thought it should be Alex Smith. But once you say it's Kaepernick, that's where it is and that's where it has to be. One thing you can't do is have a revolving door at quarterback. I've always said one of the most important relationships within a football team is quarterback/head coach. I think Kaepernick can be a better quarterback down the line. Right now? Yes, he's more athletic and he can have bigger runs, and has put up good numbers. But Alex Smith has the experience, which can be vital. Harbaugh has made the choice and Kaepernick is his guy, that's who he is going with, and a lot of players on that team have rallied around Kaepernick. You can't go back now.

Mike: Kaepernick is 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2011 draft. He played in college at Nevada. When you watch him play, is there another quarterback around the NFL you might compare his style to?

Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh's decision to go with young Colin Kaepernick instead of veteran Alex Smith could haunt him as the games get bigger.

Tedy: He's the new generation, athletic quarterback that you're seeing more teams around the league with these days, like a Robert Griffin III in Washington. He runs the spread option. I wouldn't say he's Tebow-like, but maybe you could say he's Tebow-like with much more speed and arm talent in terms of what he can do as a quarterback. That's why this is an interesting matchup to me -- this is a Bill Belichick defensive game-plan against the next generation of NFL offenses. Kaepernick is that type of true run-pass threat, and he's the type of quarterback you want to run this system, with the height, the arm, the speed, and the athletic ability. What he does to your defense is test your principles and discipline on every play.

Mike: There was a good example of this last week that you pointed out.

Tedy: The big play everyone probably saw on all the highlight shows was the read option against Miami last Sunday -- he takes it around the offensive left side and he runs 50-plus for the touchdown. The play before it was the exact same play, but the difference was that the Dolphins' defender at the end of the line, Jason Trusnik, played it differently the second time. The first time, he didn't get sucked in by the dive option and played the quarterback. He played his responsibility, fought to stay outside, and made a nice tackle on Kaepernick with Karlos Dansby. The very next play, he squeezes down too much and now he's beat. So it tests your principles and discipline. You're not playing with your eyes anymore -- you're playing by what you know and what you're coached to do. You know you have the quarterback, the coaches have told you that's your assignment, but your eyes are telling you something else because it's what you see. It's a tough situation to be in as a defensive player.

Mike: And then there is the old standby, running back Frank Gore, who has 1,035 yards on 211 carries (4.9 avg.). He's also a factor in the passing game a bit.

Tedy: Yes, and you're also starting to see them use second-round draft choice LaMichael James, the running back out of Oregon. He's more of an outside threat, a scat back. He put up big numbers in college and was explosive. If what Frank Gore does best is run between the tackles and find holes by getting downfield, James brings the quickness and is a little more elusive.

Mike: The 49ers rank second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (161.5 avg.) and average yards per carry (5.3). One thing that stood out to me about them is stability along the offensive line -- they've started the same five players in every game this season: left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis. Contrast that to the Patriots, and all the moving parts they've had up front this season, and it's an ideal scenario.

Frank Gore
The Pats' defense will have to neutralize 'Niners running back Frank Gore, who has 1,035 yards on 211 carries this season.

Tedy: That offensive line shouldn't be underestimated, starting with Iupati, who was a first-round draft choice out of Idaho in 2010. They drafted Davis in the first round that year too, as that was a time when then-coach Mike Singletary was committed to being more physical. Then you have Staley at left tackle, and it's no wonder they can run the ball well. This is a big test for the Patriots, who I think are very stout inside with Vince Wilfork and then linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo.

Mike: Let's focus a bit on receiver Randy Moss, who I'd guess will hear some nice cheers from the Gillette Stadium crowd on Sunday night. He played more than the norm last week because Mario Manningham was out. He has 21 catches for 326 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Tedy: "Straight cash, homey!" I think a lot of guys on the team will be happy to see Randy back. He was very popular in that locker room, good friends with guys like Vince Wilfork and Tom Brady. He was a good teammate. Is this his last go-around? Possibly. Let's see if he can get back to that Super Bowl. He's not their No. 1 receiver -- Michael Crabtree is the top guy. But Moss still has that element of a downfield threat to him. Do the Patriots overcompensate for that? I don't see them doing that. I can just see them being confident in putting a corner over there and jamming him at the line of scrimmage. I think that's something Randy has lacked late in his career, that sudden movement off the line of scrimmage if you're able to get your hands on him and slow him down. But once he gets going, if you just let him run off the line of scrimmage, he can still open it up. The idea of disrupting him makes me think of Ty Law when we played the Rams in the Super Bowl. They were so fast and Ty Law said, 'You can run a 100-yard dash in whatever the time is, but try running it with people in front of you.' That's the same type of mentality I think they'll take with Moss.

Mike: Tight ends Vernon Davis (38 catches, 506 yards, 5 TDs) and Delanie Walker (13 catches, 206 yards, 1 TD) are a few other players of note who play a lot and show up on the stat sheet.

Tedy: Yes, and if I'm the Patriots game-planning, I want to put Kaepernick in passing situations, especially outside the numbers. I wouldn't want to give him the running backs in the middle of the field, or the tight-end throws that make it easy on a quarterback. I want to make it tough on him, and I think having Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, those are options you want to take away. You want him throwing to Crabtree, Manningham and Moss outside the numbers.

Mike: As for the 49ers' defense, this is a physical, hard-hitting group that warrants respect. They have quite a few first-round draft choices, which speaks to the overall talent level. We haven't seen a defense shut down the Patriots this season, but this unit could have what it takes to at least slow the high-powered New England attack a bit.

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Tedy: For me, this defense starts with the linebackers. I know they have Justin Smith and Aldon Smith rushing the passer, but I'm going to focus first on Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- the best 1-2 tandem in the NFL. The 49ers leave those two on the field, never taking them off, which speaks to their overall skills -- playing the run, playing man coverage, their ability to blitz. When you watch them, you almost have to double-check the numbers to tell the difference between the two. Is that number 52 or 53? That's how closely they resemble each other, and also how good they are.

Mike: Aldon Smith, the 2011 first-round pick out of Missouri, leads the NFL with 19.5 sacks. Justin Smith is a high-motor player who has been around the block now; this is his 12th season and he also played at Missouri. A few thoughts on Justin Smith -- he's had some tough seasons between his time with the Bengals (2001-2007) and 49ers (2008-2012), and it's nice to see a player with that all-out-effort approach achieve some late-career team-based success. He's also been incredibly durable over his career.

Tedy: It's a 3-4 scheme and they do have some two-gap principles, and Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are the focal points. Last week, there was a lot of talk around these parts about J.J. Watt and what he did, and how the Patriots brought out the taped racquetball racquets in practice to simulate him in terms of getting his hands up and batting down passes. For Justin Smith and Aldon Smith this week, it's all about the 'grab.' When they are on separate ends -- Aldon Smith on the left and Justin Smith on the right -- there is nothing to worry about there. But when they line up on the same side, that's when you really have to game-plan for it and get your protection slid that way. Even if you do, Justin Smith does one of the oldest tricks in the book, something we used to do a long time ago. It's a 'game' they run and it's called a 'TE' stunt -- the 'T' is for tackle and the 'E' is for end. The 'T' is the first letter because the tackle goes first, into the 'B' gap. And then the 'E' is the second letter because the end loops around the tackle. We used to call it a 'ME' game, because the defensive tackle would call it, looking to the defensive end while saying 'me, me, me' -- as in 'I go first' into that gap. When that defensive tackle goes into that gap, you want to stay in between that guard and tackle and get penetration so your defensive end can loop around. It sounds simple to block, right? Well, this is what happens. Justin Smith, if he's on the right side, when he gets into that gap he uses his left arm and gets under the armpit of the offensive guard and he grabs and holds. That stops the offensive lineman from being able to pass the penetrator over to the offensive tackle and switch to the looper. If the tackle has a fist full of jersey or an armpit, or he has the hand hooked, the guard can't come off, and the end has a clear path to the quarterback. This is something Justin Smith does very well.

Randy Moss
Old friend Randy Moss returns to Gillette with 21 catches and 326 yards for San Francisco this season.

Mike: How is that not a penalty?

Tedy: You have to be savvy, because now they look for it. If you grab and hold too long, then you get a penalty. You grab it -- one 1,000, two, 1,000 -- and then let go, and Aldon Smith is already gone. That's something the Patriots have to look for with the Smiths.

Mike: I'll be watching closely to see how Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, the team's enforcer up front, deals with the grab technique. I'll also be watching 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, who is a player the Patriots visited with in free agency in 2011.

Tedy: I don't want to say this is the best safety tandem in the league -- when a healthy Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are out there in Pittsburgh, that's tough to beat, and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle are solid -- but when it comes to purely hitting people and knocking people out, it doesn't get any better than the Goldson/Donte Whitner tandem. They're very physical, very aggressive. These two safeties hit people and they crumble.

Mike: In the special-teams area, the 49ers' punt returner and kickoff returner is Ted Ginn, who we remember from his days with the Dolphins.

Tedy: Yes, and the 49ers' special-teams coach, Brad Seely, was here in New England from 1999 to 2008. When Seely was here, what we described Ginn as was a 'circle-you-up' type of returner. A lot of returners, like a Devin Hester, will try to take it to the sideline and then up the field. Just a subtle hint left and boom, get up field. Or a subtle hint right and boom, get up field -- north/south. That's not who Ginn is. He'll mess around back there, so you all sort of converge, and then he'll want to get to the edge with his speed. This is where your contain players really have to be coached up. No matter what he's doing, you have to keep a 15-yard leverage position on him and let those coverage players inside do their thing.

Mike: Let's get to some predictions. We know the New England weather forecast is always unpredictable at this time of year, but early indications are that precipitation -- maybe rain, maybe snow -- could be a possibility. Tom Brady joked after Monday's win over the Texans, when the game-time temperature was 59 degrees, that he wanted snow. He may get it. Brady is a terrific bad-weather quarterback and the 49ers are a terrific defense. In a game that comes down to a field goal, I think Stephen Gostkowski comes through. Patriots 23, 49ers 20.

Tedy: We clearly overestimated the Texans last week. They weren't ready for prime time and I'm not 100 percent sure that Colin Kaepernick is either. He's got a bright future, but growing pains are expected and this week he will experience just that. The 49ers' defense will make it more interesting, but the Patriots at home in December are too tough to beat. Aaron Hernandez is the difference-maker. Patriots 30, 49ers 22.