NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi joined Dennis & Callahan on Friday morning to preview Sunday's Patriots-49ers game and discuss news from around the league.
Although the Patriots blew out the Texans on Monday, Lombardi said the 49ers game will be much more difficult.
“I think San Francisco is really good,” Lombardi said. “I think this will be the toughest challenge the Patriots face all season. This is a championship-level defense. There are not a lot of easy plays. … This is one of the best teams in the National Football League keeping you off the field. They have great speed, they can run, so there are not a lot of easy plays and there are not a lot of easy yards. You are going to have to make some chunk yards up the field on them, you’re going to have to make explosive plays on them, which is hard to do against them. … You’re going to have to put your foot in the ground and get the ball moving north and south and maximize your drives. Really make sure that your focus and concentration is at the highest level because this will be a challenge for 60 minutes.”
Although the 49ers defense is good, Lombardi said that San Francisco has to be careful about covering the middle of the field.
“The concern if you’re a 49ers fan is how they’re going to handle the slot, how they’re going to handle the middle of the defense in terms of [Wes] Welker, in terms of trying to handle [Aaron] Hernandez, what’s the matchup there,” Lombardi said. “Now, people say they have Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, they could probably do it. Well, those guys can cover, but this is a unique situation in terms of covering the middle of the field. If they try to blitz Tom [Brady], it does the Patriots more good than harm. … I think they’re going to play their game. One thing about the 49ers is there’s really no secret to what they do; you’ve just got to beat them.”
Jim Harbaugh made a quarterback change earlier in the season after starter Alex Smith was out with a concussion. Colin Kaepernick has been starting even though Smith has been medically cleared to play, and Lombardi agrees with the decision.
“It makes all the sense in the world to me because I think it’s an illusion offense,” Lombardi said. “Here’s why: When you watch them closely, they’ve thrown for more than 2,500 yards, they’ve run for 2,100 yards. They really want to run the football, and part of the reason they want to run the football is much like the Houston Texans but in a different way. Their offensive line struggles. They're 28th in the league in holding calls. They're 28th in the league in sacks allowed. So, they can’t really pass protect. … When they have to drop back and pass, it becomes a problem. What I think Harbaugh has done is he’s made it look like we’re putting Kaepernick in to pretend he’s Randall Cunningham to let him run around here. The reality of it is we want to be able to run the football and make explosive plays running. … I think it’s an illusion-type thing. He’s made everybody become distracted on one thing while they’re doing something else.”
Lombardi agreed that the Patriots secondary has improved since Aqib Talib began playing at the corner, leaving Devin McCourty to concentrate at safety.
“Certainly better safety play,” Lombardi said. “Look at the last few games where they’ve gotten turnovers. They’ve made plays from the safety position, whether it was [Steve] Gregory’s interception on the Jets … to McCourty’s interception on [Matt] Schaub. … When you get range plays from your safety, it really helps you. You’re not giving up big plays, you’re not giving up chunk yards. … They’re moving more on defense and when you have big physical defenders like they do in New England and you move them, they become a real problem to block.”
Rob Gronkowski has not practiced this week, but Lombardi says it is important that the Patriots get him back on the field before the playoffs so that he can be ready.
“I think Gronk has got to play,” Lombardi said. “You’ve got to play football if you’re cleared to play. … I think once he’s cleared to play, you’ve got to get him some reps and depending on where they are in the playoffs and especially if you have to play in Round 1. You want to make sure he’s not going into Round 1 without getting any reps.”
Following are more highlights from the interview.
On the Patriots' win over the Texans on Monday night: "We said it last week. We said whoever won the first quarter was going to win the game. I think the Texans proved to me that they have to play a style that they have to play from in front. When they got behind 14-0 and the Patriots said, OK, where’s your drop-back passing game?, and the answer was, We don’t have one, you know we can’t play catchup. You cannot play Tom Brady in that kind of coverage and think you’re going to be able to be successful. … There were a couple throws that probably Tom would like to have back. I don’t even think the Patriots played their ‘A’ game in terms of their offense, but they were good enough.
On reports linking Lombardi to a job with the Browns: “The reality is I don’t know, I really don’t know what’s going to happen or transpire. … As for Cleveland, I don’t know what they’re going to do; they’re on a three-game winning streak. I was there once in Cleveland and we left. So I don’t know what’s going to transpire at the end of the season, what they do in Cleveland, or what’s going to happen in the NFL as it relates to me going back in.”
On the report that Lombardi and Bill Belichick chat during the week: “One thing about Bill and myself and our relationship … we like football together. I don’t think I help Bill in any way, at all. But we talk about football. … I ask more questions of him than he would probably ask of me. It’s a situation where you have a thirst for knowledge and you want to try to understand this. I think you go to the people that you trust and respect and you ask them questions as I do with Bill sometimes on teams.”
On the league MVP race: "I think it’s really hard. … Is it Tom Brady? Is it Peyton Manning? I think it’s going to be between those two guys. … Tom’s doing it at a level where it is very quiet how he is doing it. … And then of course Peyton Manning’s comeback. I think he’s certainly the Comeback Player of the Year, if not for Adrian Peterson, they should share it."
On former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruling in favor of the Saints players in the bounty scandal: “I think what Tagliabue did was right. I never thought you could blame the players for following out orders. That’s what they get paid to do. They’re coached and lectured each day from peewee football to do what your coach tells you to do, and they were doing it. To suspend players and to fine players who were carrying out orders, to me, never seemed right.”