The five keys

SFI's five keys for the 49ers in Sunday's game against the New York Jets at The Meadowlands:

1. A BARLOW BREAKTHROUGH: Establishing tailback Kevan Barlow and the running game has been a primary key for the Niners in each game they've played this season, but it becomes even more imperative here for several reasons. With numerous injuries to prominent players on defense, the Niners need that unit to spend as little time on the field as possible so it can get to the bye week and rest. That means controlling the clock with a steady running game, and that begins with Barlow breaking out of a recent slump that has seen him gain just 98 yards on 39 carries over the past three games. Barlow needs a big game here, too, to gain some confidence in himself and the beleaguered line in front of him entering the bye. He had a breakout game against New York as a rookie the last time the Niners played the Jets, and he needs to do it again here against a run defense that doesn't give up yards easily.

2. GAIN CONTROL OF DEFENSIVE TRENCHES: The Jets will be without both of their regular starting guards, so defensive tackles Bryant Young and Anthony Adams - who have both been sturdy so far this year - will have an opportunity to establish command early in the interior front. The key for that duo will be hitting the gaps and putting pressure on New York's reserve guards while not allowing elite Jets center Kevin Mawae to move down the line on sweeps. The San Francisco tackles need to beat those guards and force Mawae - one of the best in the game - to give them more help attention. This will disrupt everything the Jets like to do on offense, particularly in their running game, which has keyed the New York attack so far.

3. PICK UP THE BLITZ: The Jets were burned by a max blitz last week in their narrow comeback victory over Buffalo, but that won't prevent New York from coming after Niners quarterback Tim Rattay with everything it has. The Jets are particularly tough on the edges with defensive end John Abraham leading the AFC with sick sacks and his counterpart at left end, Shaun Ellis, also able to bring the heat. Those guys will require specific attention, which likely will leave some openings for speedy linebackers Eric Barton, Victor Hobson and rookie Jonathan Vilma to pick their spots. The Jets also won't hesitate to bring the occasional defensive back on a blitz, so the Niners must be both wary of and ready for the extra New York pressure. The Niners might want to consider more two-back formations on passing downs so fullback Fred Beasley will be available to pick up blitzing Jets.

4. SPREAD THE BALL AROUND: With Rattay rounding into form, the Niners have been getting better and better at utilizing all their options in the passing game. A lot was made of Eric Johnson's 13 receptions for 162 yards last week - both franchise records for a tight end - but Rattay also completed 15 passes to his wide receivers in that game. The wideouts must have an even higher percentage of receptions this time to keep a good New York defense from ganging up on Johnson. Rattay knows how to find the open receiver, particularly on hot reads, so the wideouts must step up and shake free of New York's capable secondary defenders and battle them for the football when coverage is tight. The Jets rank fourth in the NFL in interceptions per play, so they are opportunistic when the ball is in the air, and Rattay and the entire San Francisco receiving corps must make them pay when and if the Jets decide to gamble.

5. CLAMP DOWN IN THE SECONDARY: The 49ers could catch a break here if Santana Moss, New York's leading breakaway threat at receiver, is unable to play because of a hamstring injury. But even without Moss, the San Francisco secondary has its work cut out and must step up against a quality passing team, something it has seldom done so far this season. New York quarterback Chad Pennington is a smart and accurate passer who doesn't make mistakes, so the Niners won't have much margin for error. After five games of experiencing coverage breakdowns at inopportune times, it would seem San Francisco's secondary is due for a quality performance, and that will start with starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer. It's also time for San Francisco DBs to make some impact plays. Through the first five games, the secondary has yet to record an interception. That needs to change here against a quarterback who has thrown just two this season, because the Niners will sorely need plays that can get their defense off the field quickly and give the team some instant momentum.


Niners Digest Top Stories