By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After dropping to 2-3 on the season with a frustrating and uninspiring loss to the Broncos last weekend, the Patriots are in need of a win Sunday afternoon. But they have an extremely tough matchup with Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers coming to town.
This is one of those “Show Me What You Got” games for the Patriots. They’ve dropped two straight and if that becomes a third, we’re going to start questioning their spot in the AFC hierarchy. We’d feel OK about their chances of a playoff run at 3-3, but dropping to 2-4 would make the road ahead all the more daunting.
If the Patriots want to be a playoff team this year, they can’t dig themselves into such a hole. The time to start stacking up some signature wins is now, with tough matchups against the Bill and the Ravens coming up (with a layup against the Jets sandwiched in the middle). Here’s what we’ll be watching for as the Patriots look to get back in the win column on Sunday:
Will Cam Bounce Back?
Cam Newton was not very good last Sunday. That was to be somewhat expected since he hadn’t played and barely practiced in two weeks, but he was really bad. He had little-to-no pocket presence, resembling Drew Bledsoe more than Cam Newton. His throws were uninspired and often wobbly, and he struggled to even see open receivers down field, let alone hit them with passes.
Some of that had to do with New England’s makeshift offensive line, but a lot of the offense’s struggles fall solely on Newton’s shoulders. He looked great in Weeks 1 and 2, but has now turned in back-to-back iffy performances, with three interceptions in his last two games.
He got a full week of practice leading up to this game, so there are no excuses this time around. The New England offense only goes as far as Newton leads them, so he has to be better on Sunday if the Patriots want any shot at winning this football game.
The Offensive Line
The offensive line that we saw last weekend is not the offensive line that helped the Patriots become one of the league’s best running teams over the first few weeks. It was a group that had barely practiced together, and when injuries hit during the game, New England had to turn to a grouping that had never even practiced together. The results weren’t pretty.
There is hope that there will be a little more cohesion with the group this weekend, with center David Andrews set to return. Andrews is the linchpin that holds the line together, and losing him in the middle throws everything else off balance. Joe Thuney is a great guard, but he had a costly bad snap in place of Andrews and backup James Ferentz, who landed on the COVID list on Friday.
Isaiah Wynn, who shifted from his usual spot at left tackle to left guard last weekend, also struggled in his new spot. One of the few highlights from the line against the Broncos was Hjalte Froholdt, who made his debut on offense. When Jermaine Eluemunor went down in the first half, Froholdt was inserted at right guard. We never heard his name over his 45 snaps, which is always the staple of a good performance along the line. He didn’t allow a single pressure throughout the game.
It won’t be easy to get the run game going against a solid San Fran defense, but it will be a major part of New England coming away with a victory. As always, that will start with the play along the offensive line.
The Jimmy G. Show
The prodigal son returns, with Jimmy Garoppolo set to return to Gillette for the first time as a visitor. Once a potential successor to Tom Brady, Garoppolo is now the man in San Fran, and a very rich one at that.
He helped lead the team to the Super Bowl last season, but the 49ers came up short after the QB had a forgetful fourth quarter against the Chiefs. He’s battled injuries and ineffectiveness so far this season, but had a solid game last Sunday against the L.A. Rams, completing 23 of his 33 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t sacked at all as the 49ers come out victorious 24-16.
It was a big bounce-back for Garoppolo, who threw three interceptions and was sacked three times by the Dolphins before getting benched in his Week 5 return. Now he’s set to square off against his former head coach, a guy who still shoots Jimmy texts after games.
But don’t expect either side to go easy on the other come Sunday. But the postgame handshake/hug will be an interesting one.
Limit The YAC
The San Fran offense does a lot of its damage after the ball is in a receiver’s hands. The 49ers currently rank third in the NFL with 796 yards after catch. They tack on nearly six additional yards after every completion.
49ers tight end/Bill Belichick’s crush George Kittle leads everyone on San Fran with 183 receiving yards after catches, which is good for 18th in the NFL, with receiver Deebo Samuel second on the team at 134 yards after catch.
Running back Jerrick McKinnon, who is expected to get most of the playing time out of the San Fran backfield with Raheem Mostert out with an injury, is averaging an extra 2.2 rushing yards after contact to go with his three broken tackles on the season.
Keeping San Fran’s playmakers from turning a short completion into a big gain will be a major focus of the New England defense on Sunday.
“All the guys that they give the ball to are pretty hard to tackle,” Belichick said earlier this week. “I think they led the league last year in broken tackles and were pretty high up there in yards after catch or yards after contact. Some of those stats are a little misleading, but I would say with the 49ers, whoever has the ball is hard to tackle, starting with Kittle. But, all the running backs, the receivers, they do a good job with the ball in their hands and they get yardage on their own.
“Every offensive coordinator wants to try to get the ball for big plays in space, and there’s nothing unusual about that, but I’d say these guys just do a lot with it and there’s a lot of them on the field at the same time,” Belichick continued. “It’s not like you’re just talking about trying to stop one guy. I mean, they’ve got usually five of them out there, so that’s a problem.”
It’s easier said than done, but keeping San Francisco’s playmakers in front of them is a major key for the Patriots defense this weekend.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-49ers clash on WBZ-TV! Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!