By Morris Phillips
As sure as grass and pigskin, Tom Brady’s return to the Bay Area as a football player—decades in the making—had the 39-year old superstar’s competitive juices flowing, yet it wasn’t always pretty—credit the 49ers’ defense—but was briefly spectacular.
With the 49ers trailing just 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, and attempting to build on five consecutive Patriots’ offensive possessions without allowing any points, time was still running out on the home team, facing Brady with second-and-goal from the five-yard line. Pressure was the call on the play as Brady dropped back purposively looking to re-establish the Pats’ 10-point lead.
With two 49ers’ crashing through the middle, including top pick DeForrest Buckner lunging, then grabbing at Brady’s feet, the veteran quarterback spun away only to see defensive lineman Ronald Blair rushing free towards him with bad intentions.
So what did Brady do? What could he do?
While falling backwards as not to have Blair send him to concussion protocol, Brady simply lofted a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone while the quarterback celebrated laying on his back. Unique, ridiculous and—believe it or not–rehearsed, Brady delivered when little seemed possible.
“It depends on what coverage they are playing and we work on that drill every week. He started scrambling and we all find a zone and try to get open,” Amendola said.
“Brady Vick,” Julian Edelman said, playfully describing his nimble quarterback.
Amendola’s touchdown allowed the Patriots to escape a tight ballgame late, and they went on to beat the 49ers, 30-17, sending the home team to their team record-tying ninth, consecutive loss, but even in the persistent rain, the 49ers—and Brady—at least provided something to watch.
The 49ers’ defense found effectiveness from a couple of sources: the nasty weather, and Brady being a little off in junctures of the game. Brady targeted his Bay Area buddy, Edelman, 17 times, but only connected eight times with the shifty receiver, illustrating the number of passes he overthrew or missed.
But according to New England coach Bill Belichick, the 49ers also found effectiveness in crashing safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea at the snap, and outnumbering the Patriots in the run game repeatedly. Did it show in the final numbers? Not so much, as LeGarrette Blount became the latest opposing runner to surpass 100 yards rushing (124) against the Niners’ run defense. But during the second half stretch where the Patriots struggled to mount drives, the strategy worked, and Belichick took note, even mentioning that along with the safeties, the 49ers also brought corner Tramaine Brock right behind one of the safeties on several snaps.
Veteran problem solvers like Brady and Belichick can only be fooled for so long, and that was the case on Sunday. After those five, fruitless possessions, the Patriots closed the game with 17 points, scoring on three of their next four possessions. But the 49ers’ offense may have been just as much to blame as the defense.
“He’s going to make the plays he’s going to make, and that’s what he did today. He’s Tom Brady,” 49ers’ linebacker Ahmad Brooks said.
Colin Kaepernick started well on Sunday, completing 8 of 9 passes for 117 yards a touchdown in the first half. But again, after halftime, Kap struggled with accuracy, missing on 13 of his final 21 throws. Whether fatigue, or shifting defensive principles after halftime, Kaepernick has struggled after halftime in all of his starts, especially with pass accuracy.
Consequently, the 49ers did little to take advantage of how close the score was heading into the fourth quarter, punting on six, straight possessions after they climbed within three points before halftime, and only changing that pattern with a late, meaningless touchdown.
While both teams entered Sunday’s contest with issues pressuring opposing quarterbacks, only the 49ers’ issues continued. Kaepernick was sacked five times—by five different Patriots—while Brady was dumped just once. Experience, shifting schemes, or happenstance, the Patriots helped themselves in this regard, while the 49ers did not.
Afterwards, Brady lauded the experience of playing professionally in the Bay Area for the first time, and mentioned his pre-game conversation with 49ers’ assistant Tom Rathman, one of Brady’s favorite players as a youth growing up in San Mateo.
“They have a great organization, they always have,” Brady said of the 49ers and the experience of being back home. “They inspired a lot of kids here in the Bay Area in my time growing up, and I was one of them.”
Edelman, the Woodside High graduate, second Brady’s thoughts, saying “I was a huge fan. I still like to see them do well, just not when they play us. It was a great experience.”
The 49ers travel to Miami next week to take on the suddenly-hot Dolphins who have won four straight. When you’ve won just one ballgame all season, all challenges seem daunting, and this one no less. In fact, the Dolphins have more in California (twice, at the Chargers and Rams) then the 49ers (once).