Approach to the Game – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, November 30, 1998: This is an important game for the Giants. No — not in terms of playoff possibilities or a division race, but in terms of overall team self-esteem and confidence. These are issues that are not only poignant for the remainder of this year, but even more critical for the mental make-up of the team in 1999. A 49er blowout will make Head Coach Jim Fassel’s efforts for next year difficult; a close loss will hurt in the short term only; a win could prove to be a huge stepping stone.
The Giants can win this game. But they need to play at their best on offense, defense, and special teams.
Giants on Offense: Obviously the Giants cannot afford to get into a shootout with the 49ers. San Francisco has a huge advantage because of the presence of All-Pro Steve Young. The Giants need to use their old strategy from the 1990 glory days and slow down the game, using a ball control running attack and timely passing. The problem? The same old story — the opposition will be looking to shut down the Giants’ running attack first and foremost — daring New York to beat them with the pass. So do the Giants come out and try to cross the 49ers up by passing on first and second down? If Kent Graham can’t complete these passes, this plays right into the 49er strategy. On the other hand, can Gary Brown and the offensive line really move the ball against a defense designed to stop them? Tough questions.
Ideally, I would come out and attack the 49ers with the short passing game to the running backs and tight end. Such a strategy is less risky and more likely to result in completed passes that would keep the clock moving as well as maintain possession. But the Giants most explosive halfback, Tiki Barber, has not proved to be a reliable pass receiver. He also seems to have mysteriously lost his quickness and elusiveness. TE Howard Cross blocks like a guard, but he also moves and catches like one too. So if the Giants pass on first and second down, it will have to be to their strength and that is the wide receivers. This is more risky and will depend on downfield passing accuracy from the quarterback, solid pass protection from the offensive line and backs, and the receivers’ ability to get open quickly. As expected, Graham proved last week that he is very comfortable throwing to back-ups Amani Toomer and Joe Jurevicius. If Fassel wants to throw, then he should get these guys onto the field as much as possible. It’s time for Ike Hilliard to make some big plays. Remember the Giants-Jets preseason game where Fassel and QB Danny Kanell seemed to make a conscious and concerted effort to get the ball into Ike’s hands, resulting in big game for Hilliard? I would do the same on Monday night. The 49ers do not have a top secondary. If the offensive line gives Graham time and he is relatively accurate, then the Giants may be able to do some damage down the field. But if the line doesn’t give Graham time and/or incompletions result, this game could get out of hand quickly.
Regardless of Fassel’s offensive strategy. The Giants will run the ball and will have to do so successfully in order to win the game. It seems to me that the Giants’ running game is at its best with HB Gary Brown running directly behind FB Charles Way. When the Giants switch up and give Way the ball, it just hasn’t seemed to click. Firstly, it often seems as if Way mainly carries the ball on first or second down out of a one-back, three-wide formation. Very predictable. Honestly, if the Giants want to cross the 49ers up, I would pass out of this formation on the same downs. Secondly, when Way has the ball in his hands, it takes one of the Giants’ best blockers (Way himself) out of the play. Interestingly, as much as I complained early on in the season about running Brown wide, the Giants seem to have been able to successfully run Brown wide to the strongside in recent games. Still, much of my focus would remain inside and off-tackle.
Key match-ups to watch? RG Ron Stone versus DT Bryant Young (9.5 sacks) should be a great battle. LG Greg Bishop needs to play tough against DT Junior Bryant. OC Lance Scott and/or FB Charles Way against MLB Winfred Tubbs will be key. LT Roman Oben has not played well in recent weeks and faces tough veteran DE Chris Doleman (12.5 sacks). RT Scott Gragg faces DE Roy Barker. TE Howard Cross will face a tough test in blocking LB’s Ken Norton and Lee Woodall.
But let’s be honest here. If the Giants are going to win, they have to convert on third down (their greatest weakness this year), slow the game down, and score touchdowns (not field goals) when the opportunities arise.
Giants on Defense: The 49ers run the same type of offense and have the same type of quality quarterback that the Packers have — and we know what the Pack did to the Giants. Honestly, I think the Giants’ defense matches up well with West Coast Offenses, but the Giants just did not execute well against the Packers or play with a high degree of intensity. If they do the same on Monday night, the results will be the same.
My biggest disappointment with the Giants’ effort against the Pack was their ability to stop the run with their nickel personnel on the field. I expected guys like Scott Galyon to play better. What may help the Giants big time in this match-up however is the presence of SS Sam Garnes — a safety who plays like a linebacker. Regardless, the Giants need their other safeties to play better — both in terms of pass coverage and run defense. You had better believe the 49ers will test FS Tito Wooten and his tendency to bite on play fakes. They will also try to get the ball to TE Irv Smith. Whoever covers him, be it the linebackers or safeties, need to come up big. Indeed, the pass defense of the linebackers will be critical. San Francisco loves to pass to the backs.
Personally, my favorite battles to watch will be the corners (Phillippi Sparks, Conrad Hamilton, and Carlton Gray) against the talented 49er receivers (Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and J.J. Stokes). Sparks did an excellent job against Rice back in 1995 and I hope to see that match-up quite a bit. Hamilton plays a physical game. Gray has the size that matches up better with the tall 49er receivers. I would prefer to keep Gray on the field every single time the 49ers are in a 3-WR set. I don’t want to see a safety try to cover one of these guys.
But all this won’t matter unless the Giants stuff the run. If the Giants play the nickel like I expect them too (and as I would), this makes run defense that much tougher. HB Garrison Hearst can hurt a team and the Giants’ run defense has been noticeably lax in recent weeks. The defensive line MUST, simply must, control the line of scrimmage or the Giants will be in deep trouble. Moreover, the linebackers and defensive backs need to make sure, crisp tackles. Hit hard, but be sure to wrap up.
When it comes to the pass rush, the rushers must remain conscious of QB Steve Young’s ability to scramble. Indeed, Young often resembles a running back out there. Thus, even though it will hurt the rush, the defensive line must remain disciplined and stick to pre-designed pass rush lanes. Pass coverage may be hurt with the possible need and/or desire to keep a spy on Young (it would seem that Galyon or S Shaun Williams might be ideal in this role).
Finally, the Giants will most likely have to force a few turnovers in order to win. Turnovers often result not only from top execution, but hustle, intensity, and being physical. The Giants need to beat the 49ers in these departments — regardless of the situation and score.
Giants on Special Teams: Got to win this battle. Need it. I was very impressed with the work of newcomer Curtis Buckley on the coverage units last week. He brings not only talent, but an attitude. Let’s hope that the coverage units can not only limit return yardage, but hopefully also force a turnover or two. Getting David Patten back should help the kick return game.