Patriots don’t look so imposing without Brady

When the schedule came out, you could mark this one down as a 49ers loss. Now, things look a lot different. The Patriots aren’t nearly as imposing without QB Tom Brady.

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Tomorrow has not yet arrived, but tomorrow’s paper has. Here’s my article, “Martz’s deep pass routes testing offensive line.”

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Tomorrow has not yet arrived, but tomorrow’s paper has. Here’s my article, “Martz’s deep pass routes testing offensive line.”

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When the schedule came out, you could mark this one down as a 49ers loss. Now, things look a lot different. The Patriots aren’t nearly as imposing without QB Tom Brady.

The Patriots owned one of the great offenses we’ve ever seen last season. This year, New England’s offense ranks 28th in total yards. The Pats have managed just four touchdowns in three games.

OK, here’s the proclamation for which everyone has been waiting . . . this is a GPS game for the 49ers.

This is a game they need to win. This is the most winnable game they’ll have for a while. The Eagles are going to be difficult next week, and the road game (early start) against the N.Y. Giants is no easy assignment.

The thing that creates problems is that the Patriots are coming off a horrible showing – a 38-13 home loss to the Dolphins. And the Patriots staff had a full two weeks to prepare for this one.

If the 49ers lose this game, it could be a sign that the season is spinning out of control, again. However, even with a losing streak, it’s unlikely they’ll fall too far behind in the lowly NFC West.

Here’s a look at some of the key matchups:

Niners offensive coordinator Mike Martz vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick: This is the marquee matchup, as two of the top minds in the business will go head-to-head. Belichick has gotten the upper hand in three of their four head-to-head meetings, including two seasons ago when Martz was running the Lions’ offense. So much of this matchup is going to ride on what happens with Frank Gore. Will Martz feed him the ball and try to pound away at a run defense that ranks 25th in the league? What will Belichick do to try to take Gore out of the game? Belichick has had two weeks to put his plan in place, but Martz is certain to unveil something new, too.

RB Frank Gore vs. ILB Jerod Mayo: The Patriots had a horrible time defending against direct snaps two weeks ago to the Dolphins’ Ronnie Brown. Brown carried three times for 69 yards and a touchdown, threw a 5-yard scoring pass and handed off to Ricky Williams twice for 31 yards off direct snaps. Gore has gotten a direct snap once this season. Regardless of whether he’s getting direct snaps, Gore figures to play a huge role in this game. He leads the NFL with 525 yards from scrimmage. He has 369 yards rushing and 156 yards receiving. The Patriots used the draft pick acquired from the 49ers (Joe Staley) to trade back and get Mayo to plug into the middle of their defense. Mayo has 30 tackles in three games.

TE Vernon Davis vs. OLB Mike Vrabel: Davis has been a large disappointment so far this season after catching 52 passes a year ago. He has caught just two passes in the past three games, and he seems to be more valuable to the 49ers in pass protection. His frustration seemed to get the better part of him against the Saints when he gestured to the sideline after catching his first pass with just six minutes remaining. It is possible the 49ers will make more of an effort to get him down the field. Vrabel might not be responsible for running with Davis down the field, but he will try to re-route him off the line of scrimmage. There might also be times when Davis remains in to block against Vrabel, who has two sacks this season.

QB J.T. O’Sullivan vs. Patriots secondary: O’Sullivan had his worst game of the season against the Saints, as he threw two interceptions in the end zone. If he gets time to throw, he might be able to hit some plays down the field. The 49ers have not done a great job of protecting him, as the 49ers have allowed a league-worst 19 sacks. But, they’ve also connected on nine pass plays of 25 yards or more in their four games this season. The Patriots will show a lot of different looks in the secondary and try to confuse O’Sullivan into throwing more of those ill-advised passes.

LT Joe Staley vs. DE Richard Seymour: Staley has yielded a team-high five sacks (according to STATS, LLC) and he’ll have his hands full against Seymour, a five-time Pro Bowl performer. Staley figures to be left one-on-one a lot. After all, Barry Sims is likely to get some help on the other side after his rough showing against the Saints last week. Staley and the 49ers’ offensive line should fare better this week, as they’ll be able to hear O’Sullivan’s snap count.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky vs. offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: With LB Manny Lawson out of action, don’t be surprised if the 49ers play a lot more of their famed “big sub” or nickel defense against the Patriots. New England uses a lot of three-wide formations with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney. McDaniels might be wise to try to get RB Laurence Maroney going and then use play-action pass to beat the 49ers down the field. Manusky has to do a better job of finding ways to get pressure on QB Matt Cassel.

FS Mark Roman vs. QB Matt Cassel: Roman is coming off perhaps his worst game since signing with the 49ers in 2006. He has yet to generate any turnovers this season, and he has to be able to get the better of the inexperienced Cassel, who is making just his third starting assignment since the end of his high-school career. Roman has to be able to make the last-second adjustments in the secondary to make things confusing for Cassel.

CB Nate Clements vs. WR Randy Moss: Clements got beaten deep last week against the Saints’ Devery Henderson on a play in which he used poor judgment. On a third-and-13, he decided to play press coverage instead of playing off his man. Clements will have to mix it up against one of the game’s top wideouts. Clements had fared well this season against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.

CB Walt Harris vs. WR Wes Welker: Harris was the only player in the 49ers secondary who did not get scorched for a long pass last week. (Although he did surrender a short TD catch.) He’ll be matched primarily against Welker on one side. Welker moves into the slot when the Patriots go with three wides, and Harris will probably move there with him. Welker is coming off a 112-catch season. In three games, Welker seems to have struck up some nice chemistry with Cassel. Welker has a team-leading 19 receptions for 178 yards.

DE Justin Smith vs. LT Matt Light: Smith ranks third on the team with 26 tackles. He is an active player who will create a long day’s work for Light. Smith has to find a way to get some pressure on Cassel – or open the door for some of his teammates. Smith has two sacks and 15 quarterback pressures in four games.

LB Patrick Willis vs. RB Laurence Maroney: Willis is coming off a game in which he really did a nice job against the Saints’ Reggie Bush. Maroney is more of a threat running the ball, He returns after missing a game with a shoulder injury. Willis will need to avoid blockers, clog the middle and keep the Patriots in long-yardage situations. Willis is picking up where he left off last season. He leads the 49ers with 43 tackles. He also has three quarterback pressures, one interception, five passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

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Tully Banta-Cain did not warrant a key matchup because he’ll see most of his action on special teams. That didn’t keep me from writing about him in today’s paper, though. Here’s my article, “Banta-Cain gets shot at former team.”

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Farewell and good luck to the great Jeff Fletcher, who did a bang-up job for the past 11 years on the Press Democrat’s baseball beat. The man is a true pro. He excelled doing the work of two people, covering both the Giants and A’s. If you had the pleasure of reading Fletch’s work, please leave a comment on his blog to let him know how much you enjoyed his work. Thank you.

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