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The Patriots impressive 20-17 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI did a lot more than give the 49ers and their fans some satisfaction in denying the Rams a second title in three years. It may also have revealed the path the 49ers should take if they want to finally beat the St. Louis juggernaut.
The Patriots stunning defensive gameplan may have repercussions on how the 49ers will approach their personnel moves in the off-season. Here’s what we learned from Sunday:
The 49ers Biggest Need is Certainly Not a Pass Rusher – It’s Corner
When it comes to stopping the Rams, the consensus has been that you can’t give Kurt Warner time to throw. The Philadelphia Eagles blitzed him relentlessly in their regular season matchup with great success, taking the Rams to overtime. Michael Strahan was a one-man wrecking crew in the Giants game, which the Giants almost won, too. Therefore, many 49ers’ fans bemoaned the time Warner had to throw in the two 49er games this year. You need to pressure Warner to win, right?
Yet a funny thing happened in the NFC Championship game. The Eagles, who usually blitz on virtually every down, stopped doing it. Many Eagles’ players second-guessed the move afterwards, but the fact is that the Rams were losing that game late in the third quarter and had scored just 13 points. The Eagles were not blitzing – and it was working. The Patriots picked up where the Eagles left off.
The Patriots left Warner alone. You want to know how many times the Patriots blitzed on Sunday? Try eight times. That’s right: eight times. The Patriots used an additional defensive lineman on only three plays. Many times they lined up with only three.
And it’s not like those three players were all Jevon Kearse clones. How about Bobby Hamilton, 49ers cast-off Anthony Pleasant, rookie Roland Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Brandon Mitchell? McGinest is the only player you could remotely call a pass rusher, and he missed most of the Patriots’ 11-5 season with a back injury.
The Patriots did instead was flood the secondary with defensive backs. The Pats were in nickel or dime sets on 54 of the Rams’ 69 snaps: 22 times they were in the nickel, 26 times in dime, and six times they lined up with seven defensive backs. They blitzed just enough, however, to cause confusion along the Rams’ offensive line.
The Patriots’ backups at cornerback and safety are not great players, just smart ones who can cover and know how to hit. In order to beat the Rams, the 49ers are going to have to find two to three players like that before they even think about getting a pass rusher.
The Rams 'soft’ label has been overstated a bit, but there is a reason it won’t die. While they aren’t wimps, they clearly are not a very physical offense. Teams like the Eagles, Patriots, and Buccaneers have noticed that they don’t respond well to a lot of contact. That’s a lesson the 49ers should learn from come 2002.
There are some who would say that the 49ers should pursue big corners in order to get more physical, but the reality is that being physical has nothing to do with size. Just look at the Patriots secondary: Ty Law is 5-9. Otis Smith is 5-11. Nickel man Terrell Buckley is 5-9. Backup safety Antwan Harris, who forced Ricky Proehl’s second-quarter fumble, is also 5-9. The Patriots, like most teams, have two big safeties in starters Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones. But that’s it.
The Patriots and Bill Belichick understand that being physical is about attitude, execution, and fundamentals. It’s about letting the offense know you’re there, on every snap and at every moment. It’s about bumping and hitting players off the line and knocking them senseless at the end – regardless of whether they catch the ball, drop the ball, or are nowhere near the ball.
It’s about always wrapping up and making tackles. Hopefully Lance Schulters, who loves to throw his body at players to deliver big hits without wrapping up, was watching. It’s about being confident enough in your players to switch coverages and schemes with every snap and knowing they will execute. Ty Law said afterwards that the Patriots had over twelve coverage schemes for the Rams, and they constantly switched back and forth from zone to man-on-man.
The Rams dropped five passes in which the ball was clearly jarred loose by a hard hit. They also misfired on a few other throws in which the receiver heard footsteps and didn’t extend for the ball. Torry Holt, who talked all week as if the Rams had already won the game, was especially leery about going over the middle. With all the jams at the line and shoves down the field, the Rams also had trouble running very precise routes.
The result is that no Rams player had more than five catches, and none of them came close to the 100-yard mark.
“You don't want to say they don't like getting hit, but I will say they haven't had to play much against secondaries that hit like we do,” Tebucky Jones told ESPN. “There came a point when they were playing with their heads on swivels a little bit, looking around to see just where we might be coming from, you know? That was all part of our game plan and we didn't have to adjust it very much.”
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Special Teams
The 49ers probably spend more time working on their cheerleaders’ choreography than finding a kicker. It seems like every year the job is won by a new free agent that no one else wants, who then proceeds to kick more miserably as the season progresses. Jose Cortez is the latest in the long line of afterthought kickers.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have a guy like Adam Vinatieri, who could kick a ball through a gopher hole from the back of a Ferrari. Blindfolded. With the flu.
If an offense wants to run the football, like the 49ers want to do, they need a kicker. The line between victory and defeat is often small with run-oriented offenses, and a good kicker can save a season. Just look at the Patriots and Vinatiei,
Vinatieri has never missed a field goal indoors. Never. This year alone he has kicked a 44-yarder to beat the Chargers in overtime. Had the Patriots lost that game, they would have been 1-4 instead of 2-3 and probably would have missed the playoffs. He also kicked a 28-yarder to beat the Jets, and a 23-yarder to beat Buffalo. All three wins were on the road.
Yet in the playoffs, where every team is tough, it is especially crucial to convert your field goal opportunities. So all Vinatieri did was convert all six kicks he tried within 50 yards (his lone miss was a 50-yarder against Pittsburgh with the Patriots already ahead 24-17). He kicked a 45-yarder into a snowstorm with seconds left to force overtime against the Raiders. Vinatieri then kicked a 23-yarder into the same frigid wind to win it. Against the Rams he calmly nailed 37-yard and 48-yard field goals to preserve a tie and produce a win, respectively.
Let’s not forget the spectacular special teams’ coverage and Troy Brown’s returns. Against the Steelers in the AFC Championship, on the road, all the Patriots did was down two punts inside the 20-yard line, block a field goal and return it for a touchdown, and return a punt for another touchdown.
The Patriots would not have won a single playoff game this year without great special teams play. And they got it. Hopefully, the 49ers will get it, too.
(For the record, I thought the cheerleaders’ choreography sucked. Let’s hire that guy from Riverdance.)
Don’t Underestimate Chemistry
The 49ers are telling their fans and the media that the Terrell Owens fiasco will not be a distraction. The reasoning is that Terrell Owens is the best player on the team and one of the best in football, and that, along with his salary cap number, is keeping him in San Francisco.
While I agree with that for now, I can’t help but notice how the Patriots handled the Terry Glenn situation. When Terry Glenn opted to not participate in training camp practices, there were no negotiations. There was no settlement. Management did not give in.
They simply told Glenn that there’s no one person who’s above the team. 'We don’t need you. Beat it.’
You cannot underestimate the impact that had. When people say that the Patriots put ego aside and play as a team, it’s not a cliché. It’s actually the truth. When the Patriots ran out onto the field together during the introductions at the Super Bowl instead of singling out their starters, it was a telling and appropriate move.
Glenn may not be as good as Owens. Yes, Owens is a hard worker while Glenn is not. But Glenn is far and away the best offensive player on that team. The Patriots are a much better team when Glenn is playing and contributing. Yet the Patriots were not willing to sacrifice chemistry in favor of talent. On Super Bowl Sunday, they were rewarded for it.
So while the 49ers move on with Terrell Owens, they should know that it is not impossible to win, and win it all, when you part with tainted talent. I agree that we should keep Owens on the team for now. But the Patriots have shown me, and hopefully the 49ers as well, that getting rid of him is an option. We can win without #81.
Just do what the Patriots do.