Niners well aware that Pats are ultimate test

Niners well aware that Pats are ultimate test

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By Kevin KurzCSNBayArea.com

SANTA CLARA Just in case the 49ers defenders needed a reminder that their next opponent was going to provide perhaps the toughest test of the season, they got it on Monday night.

Several key defensive starters were able to catch at least a portion of New Englands 42-14 dismantling of the Houston Texans. The defending AFC champions were firing on all cylinders in front of a national audience, giving Houston just its second loss of the year.

And, the 49ers were watching. New England (10-3) has won seven straight and will host San Francisco (9-3-1) on NBCs Sunday Night Football.

They looked good. They looked real good, man, said defensive lineman Ray McDonald. Weve got to come out here really prepared for that up-tempo offense.

Cornerback Perrish Cox said: I thought it was going to be closer than what it was. Houston is a good team. You can never look past the Patriots at all. Thats one of the best teams of the past decade, and still is. Thats one of them teams you just cant look past.

Of course, the Pats offense starts with quarterback Tom Brady. The 13-year pro has thrown 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and is second in the league with a 104.2 passer rating, percentage points behind Robert Griffin III and a tenth of a point better than Niners backup Alex Smith.

On Monday against Houston, the 35-year-old San Mateo native was 21-for-35 for 296 yards with four touchdowns and no picks against one of the stronger defenses in the NFL.

Hes more one of those laid-back, confident quarterbacks that basically you can tell his demeanor and he knows exactly what hes doing, Cox said. Hes one of those confident quarterbacks that basically calls his own offense. Hes a vet, a very good vet thats talented.

They have a lot of different weapons, a lot of guys that can make plays, but were really fighting against Tom Brady, cornerback Tarell Brown said. He has the keys to the car, and we definitely have to stop him.

Lineman Ricky Jean Francois is hoping that pressure on Brady will lead to a more effective defense of the future Hall-of-Famer. But, thats easier said than done.

They have a great offensive line. The only way Tom Brady's going to be successful is when those guys are going to block, Francois said. For their running game to work, the O-line's got to block. You've got to take your hat off to the trenches always, first. Without the trenches, you won't have a successful offense or defense.

McDonald said: They are physical. They are a physical bunch. They work together, they're smart. Just watching them last night, they're not a finesse team. They can run the ball, too.

The 49ers corners are also likely to get a healthy dose of Wes Welker, the Pats receiver who leads the team and is ninth in the NFL with 1,116 yards.

What makes the 59, 185-pounder so effective? Cox compared him with another skilled guy that the 49ers had trouble containing earlier this year.

The breakout speed, I dont think hes really that fast, but the quickness itself, hes just like another Danny Amendola, Cox said, referring to the Rams wideout who caught 11 balls for 102 yards on Nov. 11 against San Francisco. Both of them went to Texas Tech, and I was able to play against Amendola at Tech, so theyre quite similar receivers. Like I said, I really cant answer what makes them so good, but him and quarterback is on the same page every play.

Brown said: Youve just got to make plays. I think at the end of the day, they do a lot of reads on and off the field. We have to do the same thing play with what you see, and play fast.

In what could easily be a Super Bowl preview, Brown is anxious to learn how his club stacks up against the surging Pats, who have won 20 consecutive December home games.

Yeah, its a measuring stick for all of us, Brown said. I think well all be tested and challenged throughout the game, and thats the good thing about it.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.