We know the 49ers like to run the ball, but the Patriots actually have more carries than the Niners this season, and the run game has been crucial to their success.
Patriots running game vs. 49ers run defense
New England is third in the NFL with 434 carries this season, and leads the league with 20 rushing touchdowns. This is a different look from the Patriots, who can still air it out with the best of them — Tom Brady is putting up MVP numbers — but their effective rushing attack has made them even more lethal in 2012.
Led by Stevan Ridley, the Patriots have rushed for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games — and they happen to be on a seven-game winning streak. Using an up-tempo offense, quick run plays have churned out chunks of yards for New England, which has helped set up a play-action passing attack that’s hard to stop.
The Patriots have had success rushing every which way, but have most often rushed it up the gut, following OGs Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins and C Ryan Wendell. Ridley has often gotten to the second level going in between the tackles, and change-of-pace backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen are a bit shiftier to keep defenses on their toes.
The 49ers, though, might be the most stout run defense the Pats have faced all season, and certainly the best unit since the Seahawks, the last team to defeat New England. OLB Aldon Smith leads a ferocious pass rush, giving the Patriots more reason to get a run game going to help keep Smith at bay.
As much as the Patriots like to run up the gut, their backs are going to have to find a way to get past ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the key run defenders for the 49ers and arguably the top inside linebacker duo in the league. Willis and Bowman are quick and range sideline to sideline.
On the line, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are also stout at the point of attack to keep the Patriots’ backs from even getting to the linebackers.
As a whole, the Niners are very physical and will lay the lumber. Woodhead and Vereen are slippery and good at breaking tackles, but that’s hard to do against San Francisco, even in the secondary. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are very good in run support — if we’re to assume any back gets away from Willis and Bowman into the secondary. OLBs Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks help set the edge, as teams struggle to rush off tackle vs. the 49ers.
The Patriots could, however, choose to rush at Smith, who has improved his run defense but is better known for his pass rush (league-leading 19½ sacks). The Pats’ offense is predicated on attacking a defense’s weakness, and they won’t find many on Sunday night. Whichever player or area is susceptible to the run, look for Ridley and company to attack it.
The 49ers have to be prepared for a balanced offense, and will gain an advantage if they bottle up the run, putting Brady in obvious passing situations. The Patriots’ run game is also adept late in games, burning up the clock to protect a lead. If that situation occurs, the 49ers need to find a way to stop it and avoid getting burned by a play-action pass.
Another key part of the matchup in the trenches will be takeaways. The Pats have lost only five fumbles all season, and the Niners have forced nine, recovering eight.
We saw the Patriots torch a very good Houston defense on national TV in Week 14, and the 49ers won’t want to be victimized like that on Sunday night. With this year’s Patriots, the run game helps make things go. If Ridley, Vereen and Woodhead can run with ease, it could be another prime-time rout for the Pats.