By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game: The win in New England was HUGE. It not only kept the Giants two games in front of the Cowboys and three games in front of the Eagles, but just as importantly it was a tremendous confidence boost to the team. Talent matters little unless you have confidence and the Giants are a confident bunch right now. That type of last second victory where the Giants snatched victory from the jaws of defeat helps bring a team together too. And you could see tangible evidence of that in the Giants’ post-game locker room.
So the Giants are on the road again this week, against an opponent that many expect them to lose to during this supposedly impossible stretch of games. The 49ers are a tough, physical football team that plays very good defense, employs a power running game, plays good special teams, and doesn’t hurt itself with turnovers. In a way, they are very similar to the Giants’ teams under Parcells. And it’s now the Giants who have the high-flying passing game that is more finesse than physical.
One of the primary challenges this week for Tom Coughlin is to get his team prepared emotionally and mentally against this tough, physical opponent coming off the emotional high in New England and before another showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants should be confident, but they are going to have to bring their “A” game against a 49ers team that won’t make it easy on them. And this is a game that the 49ers and their fans have circled as one of the most important of the season. It’s going to be a dogfight.
Giants on Offense: The 49ers have the ninth-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and first in terms of points allowed. The 49ers are giving up less than 15 points per game. And they are impressively #1 in run defense, allowing only 71 yards per game.
The strength of the 3-4 defense is a tough, physical front seven, anchored by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. These two combined with NT Isaac Sopoaga make it tough to run inside. The pass rush thus far has come from RDE Justin Smith (4.5 sacks) and outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks (5 sacks) and Aldon Smith (6.5 sacks). Also concerning is that the 49ers have forced 19 turnovers (10 interceptions, 7 fumble recoveries).
With the Giants’ running game slowly improving but still not overly productive (29th in the NFL) facing the NFL’s #1 ranked run defense, you would think Coughlin and Gilbride would come out passing. But I thought they would do that more against New England’s 32nd-ranked passing defense and 9th-ranked run defense than they did. Maybe that was a function of Hakeem Nicks being out. But it also may be Coughlin’s stubbornness to get the ground game going no matter what the caliber of the competition.
Personally, I would come out throwing the football. Not only because I think this plays more to the Giants’ strengths and 49ers’ weaknesses, but also because if the Giants can get a quick early lead, the 49ers may be forced to pass more offensively – and that is not the strength of their offensive football team. The 49ers secondary is an average one. This is Tarell Brown’s first season as a fulltime starter at right corner and the left corner is ex-Redskin Carlos Rogers who the Giants have had some success against. Safeties Dashon Goldson and ex-Bill Donte Whitner are solid run players who can be exposed in the passing game. I’d spread the 49ers out and throw. However, this becomes much harder to do if Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) does not play; the Giants’ offense seemed out of sync without him.
There are two huge keys for the Giants’ offense. First, protect the football. The 49ers are not a flashy team. They thrive on the mistakes of other teams. If the Giants don’t lose the turnover battle, they should win the game. Second, the Giants have to start playing better offensively early in the game. They need to put some touchdowns on the board early to really take the 49ers out of their game.
Giants on Defense: The 49ers have a big, talented, and physical offensive line with one of the most physical and productive running backs in the game (Frank Gore). They try to confuse opposing defenses with multiple formations and personnel combinations, but when you get right down to it, despite all those shenanigans, this is a straight-ahead, power running team. The Giants are going to have to buckle their chin straps on tight and get ready for an old-fashioned football game.
The bad news is that the Giants’ defense is not really constructed for this type of offense. Since there are very few power running teams in the NFL anymore and most of the serious competition comes from high-flying passing attacks, the Giants’ defense is built around getting to the passer. But Tuck, Umenyiora, JPP, and Kiwanuka won’t be able to do that unless they find a way to limit the 49er ground game and force San Francisco into 3rd-and-long situations.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers’ strategy is an obvious one. Don’t fall victim to the Giants’ pass rush. Run the football against the Giants’ 25th-ranked run defense. Osi Umenyiora has been doing a very good job of rushing the passer, but he’s still getting pushed around on running plays. Michael Boley is not a big, physical guy. Rookie linebackers Jacquian Williams and Greg Jones have struggled against the run. And though better in recent weeks, the Giants have made mental mistakes in gap discipline much of the season. I would think the Giants are going to have to get away from their three-safety look in this game. But that really puts Greg Jones on the spot, and right now, he’s been a liability in the middle of the defense. Umenyiora also needs to play a lot tougher this weekend against a quality opponent in LT Joe Staley.
I’d be a bit more comfortable this week if Jimmy Kennedy were available. As it is, I would not be shocked to see the Giants employ some five defensive linemen packages. I certainly would not use guys like Dave Tollefson inside this week. All of the guys up front will have to play tough, physical football or the Giants will be in trouble. In particular, the defensive tackles – Canty, Joseph, and Bernard – need to play well. And the defensive backs also need to disengage from blocks quickly (the 49er receivers are good blockers) and come up and play the run.
When the 49ers do pass, they don’t ask Alex Smith to do a lot. But to his credit, he has not hurt his team (only two interceptions). His favorite target has been TE Vernon Davis, a speedy vertical threat who can get down the field. WR Michael Crabtree is talented but inconsistent. The 49ers will also do some crazy things like throw to eligible offensive and defensive linemen playing at the TE position.
The key defensively is as obvious as it gets. Stop the run. If the Giants can limit the damage Gore and Kendall Hunter do, the 49ers will be in trouble. If the Giants don’t, the G-Men will be in trouble.
Giants on Special Teams: There is a big concern here as the 49ers arguably have the best all-around special teams unit in football. Ex-Eagle PK David Ackers is having a tremendous season, including four 50+ yard field goals and 22 touchbacks on kickoffs. P Andy Lee is leading the NFL in net punting. And returner Ted Ginn, a speedster, has already returned both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns.
Punting and punt coverage for the Giants has been very good this year and kickoff coverage has been much improved. But both will be tested by Ginn. Aaron Ross muffed his first punt last week, but I get the feeling he is due for a big return. Devin Thomas has been shaky fielding kickoffs. (Late Note: Thomas has reportedly lost the kickoff return job to Da’Rel Scott and D.J. Ware).