Much has been made of the new blood that’s been infused into the 49ers in 2012.
Young players like Colin Kaepernick and running back LaMichael James, along with other free-agent signings like Mario Manningham and Randy Moss have paid huge dividends for San Francisco this season. But when the 49ers look across to the opposite sideline on Sunday night, they’ll see another team that has restocked its talent for the 2012 season.
The Patriots have especially revamped the defensive side of the ball this year and it shows up on film.
“As you look at them on defense,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, “they’re as physical a defense as we’ve seen since we’ve been here, as fundamentally sound a defense as we’ve seen. And they present you just a multitude of things to prepare for, both from a personnel and schematic standpoint.”
Despite all the newcomers flying around for the Patriots defense these days, it all starts front and center with veteran Vince Wilfork. The defensive tackle possesses agility and athleticism rarely seen for a man of his size (6-foot-2, 325 pounds), making him a threat in both run stuffing and pass-rushing.
It will be up to center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Mike Iupati to try and slow down Wilfork and his supporting cast, which features an impressive crop of rookies.
The New England front office did a great job of selecting playmakers in the 2012 NFL Draft, adding impact players like defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
“Their front seven is as stout as I’ve seen and it starts with the big guy Wilfork, who’s a tremendous athlete for his size,” Roman said. “And then the line backing crew, they’re just big, physical, athletic guys that complement their down linemen. … Secondary is very physical as well, physical in coverage, they give you a multitude of looks and it’s a lot to prepare for. We’re excited about it.”
Jones, a talented pass-rusher out of Syracuse, has six sacks for the Patriots while Alabama alum Hightower has been a consistent force along with fellow linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo. Former Nebraska Cornhusker Dennard, meanwhile, has carved out a role on the starting defense and formed an imposing cornerback duo along with Aqib Talib, who was recently acquired via trade from Tampa Bay.
Add it all up, and that’s a talented group of players on defense. Not to mention to the New England coaching staff, which has built a system that often perplexes opposing teams.
“You’re not quite sure what they’re doing until right before the ball snaps,” Roman said. “So, (the front seven) can move around and really fit in anywhere. And then from a coverage standpoint, really good disguise team, good players, good scheme.”
On the flip side, the 49ers offense has a tool to help confuse opposing defenses: the Pistol offense. Only don’t call it the Pistol offense around 49ers headquarters. Two syllables are too many.
“We just use one syllable,” Roman said. “It’s a ‘Q’ formation.”
Colin Kaepernick, who learned the Pistol offense from the formation’s inventor, University of Nevada coach Chris Ault, has thrived in the formation with the 49ers. Just look at last week’s 50-yard touchdown run, when Kaepernick deked out the Dolphins defense with a nice play-action fake to Frank Gore before running untouched down the left sideline.
“Kap’s 50-yard run a couple of weeks ago,” Roman said, “there was 10 guys on that side of the field.”
Roman has been incorporating the Pistol or Q formation into his offense dating back to his time at Stanford with Jim Harbaugh. Roman even remembers watching a “productive” Kaepernick run the offense in college, before taking a trip up to Reno to pick Ault’s brain about the pros and cons of the formation.
“That was very valuable time spent,” Roman said. “He was very accommodating and it was very interesting as a coach to go really learn something totally new. And he’s a very good football coach that was very accommodating.”
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