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Did it work? Robert Saleh’s gameplan against New England last year

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to review the games between the 49ers and the Jets’ AFC East rivals in 2020 to see what we can learn about Robert Saleh’s approach to countering these teams, starting today with a look at the 49ers-Patriots game.

Saleh was obviously the 49ers’ defensive coordinator and playcaller in 2020, so we’ll mostly focus on the defensive side of the ball. However, he also brought 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton with him to the Jets. LaFleur will be the offensive coordinator in 2020 and his system is expected to be similar to that of the 49ers. We’ll therefore also touch on some of the offensive aspects of the gameplans against these teams.

The 49ers met New England in week seven last year. At the time, New England were 2-3 and the 49ers were 3-3. However, San Francisco was reeling from a series of injuries over the past few games.

On defense, they were without starters Nick Bosa, Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, Richard Sherman, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt (and the first four of those were done for the year). Nevertheless, Saleh operated a gameplan that was focused on keeping Cam Newton in the pocket and forcing him into reactionary decisions.

The base defense operated with a wide four-man front, with both edges making a concerted effort to get upfield rather than stunting or making an inside move that might enable Newton to vacate the pocket. This kept him contained and freed up a seventh defender to drop into coverage. Fred Warner capitalized on a bad read to make this crucial shoestring interception in such a situation.

On passing downs, the 49ers typically brought six or seven players up to the line of scrimmage so you didn’t know who was coming and who was going to drop. This enabled them to get off the field on third downs with New England going 1-for-6 on the day. New England was ultimately held to less than 150 passing yards with four interceptions.

On this play, the 49ers line up with three down linemen and two linebackers standing up on the edge, including defensive end Kerry Hyder. They drop both edge defenders into coverage here and send an inside linebacker on a blitz, forcing Newton into a quick decision and leading to a completion short of the marker.

The 49ers didn’t blitz much - although they actually ramped things up after Newton was benched for Jarrett Stidham - and when they did send a linebacker, they often dropped a lineman into coverage. However did send an extra linebacker for this key third quarter sack though, breaking a tendency by sending their edge defender on an inside rush so that the linebacker could blitz from the slot with the right tackle late to react.

Despite only having four men upfront, the interior defenders did a good enough job of occupying blocks that linebackers were able to rally to the ball against the run, an area where the 2021 Jets should also be strong. However, New England still had some good success, rushing for 94 yards at over four per carry.

On offense, the 49ers operated a conservative gameplan, with one of the keys being Deebo Samuel, who kept the chains moving on a series of toss plays, reverses and motions out to the flat. This perhaps underlines the need for the Jets to add that kind of versatile talent.

Rookie Brandon Aiyuk posted a hundred-yard game for the 49ers, finding some good space over the middle thanks to effective play action and well-spaced route combinations. He also caught a deep pass on a rare downfield shot on 3rd-and-4 in the third quarter.

San Francisco also leaned heavily on their fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, in the running game. This might be another area where the Jets look to upgrade, perhaps by targeting Juszczyk himself. He also scored a touchdown on a fullback dive as Samuel ran a fake jet sweep motion.

At running back, the 49ers were without Raheem Mostert, Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, but fourth stringer Jeff Wilson stepped in and ran for 112 yards and three scores, before then getting injured himself. Then, rookie JaMycal Hasty came in and racked up 57 yards himself.

What this tells us is that the running game could be successful with almost anyone back there and perhaps suggests it would be foolish for the Jets to expend too many assets on the position during the offseason.

So...did it work? Unquestionably, yes. San Francisco wound up taking a 23-3 lead before halftime and ultimately won in convincing fashion, 33-6. Jets fans will certainly hope Saleh can dial up more successful gameplans like this one against New England in the seasons to come.