In a season that has rapidly become a test of how many blows the San Francisco 49ers can withstand, it wasn't a surprise to learn they will be down even more starters due to injury for a key Week 7 matchup with the New England Patriots.
An ankle sprain suffered by running back Raheem Mostert in last week's win over the Los Angeles Rams has sent him to injured reserve. San Francisco will also be down both starting safeties as Jaquiski Tartt misses out with a groin injury and Jimmie Ward is sidelined because of a quad issue.
The absence of Mostert will likely press another undrafted free agent running back into an increased workload, with rookie JaMycal Hasty outshining Jerick McKinnon in the second half against Los Angeles as he helped seal victory with several impressive gains on the ground.
In the first of two Niner in Focus videos, we look back at some of Hasty's top plays against the Rams, which saw him display burst, agility and an intelligent approach to his running.
All of those aspects of Hasty's game will be key should the Niners lean on him to keep their zone heavy ground attack performing at an efficient level versus a New England defense that has been susceptible to the run. The Patriots ranked 18th in Football Outsiders rush defense DVOA through Week 6.
If Hasty can give the Niners that spark running the football, then it may prove a big step towards them claiming what would be a vital win in the second week of an imposing five-game gauntlet.
San Francisco began that gauntlet in superb fashion by beating the Rams and, with injuries refusing to let up and games with the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints on the horizon, it increasingly looks as if the Niners' season will hinge on getting through this stretch and to their Week 11 bye with a record at least close to .500.
The 49ers tackle a somewhat softer schedule thereafter and could have the likes of Weston Richburg, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman back to help them attempt to put together a late-season surge for the playoffs.
It would behoove the Niners, therefore, to get back above .500 by overcoming a New England team looking to avoid a third successive defeat. Due to the lack of pass rush, defensively the 49ers must rely on their coverage to prevent Cam Newton and his struggling supporting cast from getting going through the air.
A New England defense that finished first in DVOA last year was built largely on the excellent coverage provided by the secondary. While the loss of both safeties may hinder San Francisco's pass defense on Sunday, the Pro Bowl level play of Jason Verrett at cornerback has fostered hope the Niners can rely on their coverage to stay in the upper echelon of NFL defenses in 2020.
According to the NFL's NextGen Stats, when Verrett was targeted as the nearest defender, the Rams offense had an Expected Points Allowed (EPA) of minus 8.6.
Switching the focus to Verrett, we look at two of his top plays against Los Angeles, including a third-quarter interception in the endzone on fourth down that preserved a 12-point lead.
In Week 6, the Denver Broncos defense held Cam Newton to 157 passing yards and intercepted him twice. Newton averaged minus 0.52 EPA per dropback against the Broncos.
Verrett has produced lockdown coverage in each of his four games this season and is now making critical plays on the ball.
If he can exert the kind of influence to where Newton endures a similarly difficult day throwing and Hasty ensures the San Francisco running game is still productive, then the Niners will have a recipe for a triumph that would further playoff aspirations many deemed dead in the water just last week.
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