Jan 182012
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Approach to the Game – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, January 22, 2012: Two down; two more to go.

No one can deny now that the Giants are peaking at the right moment.  And on the surface, it appears they caught a huge break when the 49ers beat the Saints last week at Candlestick Park since the Saints have given the Giants so much trouble the last few years.  But one very large obstacle remains in their path on their voyage to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.

These 49ers are more like the 1990 Giants than the 1990 49ers.  They run the ball.  They play outstanding defense.  And their special teams are superb.  They are tough and physical.  They are well coached.  Most importantly, they don’t beat themselves.

I’m sure many of their opponents wonder after the game, “How did we lose to these guys?”  That’s the same feeling a lot of teams had about the 1990 Giants.  When you play tough, hard-nose football, and are solid in all three phases of the game, you can be very tough to beat – even if you don’t have a lot of flash.  When the Giants walked off the field in November at Candlestick, they were certainly asking the same question.

The two big things the Giants have that the 49ers don’t are Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning.  This marriage that began in 2004 is the heart of the New York Giants franchise.  For most of the Giants and 49er players, this is the biggest game of their lives.  But Coughlin and Manning have been here before.  And they are a calming influence on the rest of their team, most of whom have never gotten this far in the playoffs.

The Giants need to play physical, tough, and aggressive football in all three phases of the game.  But they also need to play smart and keep their composure.  When adversity strikes as it always does in a big game, Coughlin and Manning will lead them through it.

Go Giants!

Giants on Special Teams: Why am I putting special teams first?  Offense and defense are clearly more important in determining the outcome of the NFC Championship, right?  Maybe not.  The 49ers have arguably the best special teams unit in the NFL.  They have two very good kickers.  David Ackers led the NFL in 2011 with 44 field goals.  He is converting on almost 85 percent of his field goal attempts and has 47 touchbacks.  Andy Lee is the NFL’s best punter – averaging 51 yards per punt (also leading the NFL in net putting at 44).

Ted Ginn is extremely dangerous on both punt and kickoff returns.  He has scored a touchdown on both this year.  Ginn did injure his right knee in last week’s game.

One of the big reasons why the Giants lost against the 49ers in November was the play of the special teams.  The 49ers surprised the Giants with an onside kickoff that the 49ers turned into an extra possession and points.  If 49er Head Coach Jim Harbaugh feels the Giants are the better team, I think he will try more shenanigans.  Watch out for a fake punt or field goal, or some trickery on a return.

The field position battle was a huge factor in the game in November.  As rnargi wrote in his game review: “The average start for the Giants was their own 19 yard line (they started 3 drives inside their 20, and their best starting field position on the day was their own 22) while the 49ers average starting field position was their own 35 (they started two drives in Giants territory and one at midfield).”

The Giants need do better than that in the NFC Championship in order to help out both their offense and defense.  The Giants probably will not out-shine the 49ers on specials on Sunday, but they have to make a respectable showing.

Giants on Offense: The running game abandoned the Giants again last week.  New York had only three good runs all game, and two of those came very late in the contest.  That was against the 14th ranked run defense of the Packers.  This week, they face the #1 run defense in the NFL – a run defense that surrenders on average only 77 yards per game.  The last time these two teams played, Ahmad Bradshaw did not play.  Brandon Jacobs had 55 yards on 18 carries and D.J. Ware chipped in with 34 yards on 9 carries.  That’s 3.3 yards per carry.  I don’t think we can expect much better than that even with Bradshaw in the lineup.

If the Giants are going to score and win this game, they have to be able to throw the ball.  And the key to throwing the ball this week is the pass protection ability of the Giants’ offensive line, tight ends, and backs.  The 49ers are going to come after Eli Manning and they are going to come after him in a big way.  The Giants’ blockers are going to struggle protecting Eli facing this group, just like the much more talented Saints’ line did last week.  Can the blockers give Eli just enough time to make the 49ers pay?  Can Eli continue to avoid the rush when his pass protection breaks down?  Most importantly, will Eli make smart decisions and take sacks instead of forcing the ball.  We saw him force one ball last week when the Packers brought the pressure and that resulted in an interception.  He can’t do that this week.

The heart of the 49ers’ 3-4 defense is their front seven, led by inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.  They are athletic play-makers who can do it all – play the run, cover, blitz.  OLB Ahmad Brooks has seven sacks but the guy who really is the pass-rush terror it situational pass rusher Aldon Smith (14 sacks).  Many 49er fans feel Smith is a better player than JPP.  To make matters worse, DE Justin Smith is one of the better two-way defensive ends in football and he has 7.5 sacks.  There is going to be intense pressure on the Giants’ two tackles – David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie to handle the outside pass rush in this game.  Diehl and McKenzie are probably going to need help from the backs and tight ends, and that will limit Eli’s options in the passing game. Inside, NT Isaac Sopoaga is very tough to move out.  The Giants need a strong game out of David Baas.

My strategy would be to max protect and use Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Mario Manningham to try to take advantage of a somewhat overrated secondary.  Carlos Rogers is decent, but not as good as his reputation.  Tarrell Brown and Culliver are ordinary.  The safeties – Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner – are good players who make a lot of tackles and will hit you.

If the Giants can protect Manning, I think the Giants can move the ball and score.  Most importantly, protect the football.  Manning must not turn the ball over (no interceptions and no fumbles).  And the backs and receivers must also be careful.  The 49ers are +28 on turnovers.  They thrive off of them.  If you don’t turn the ball over, you have a good chance to beat them.

Giants on Defense: The defense has been playing much better in recent weeks, but there is still room for improvement.  The last time these two teams faced, the Giants expected the 49ers to be more run-centric and got burned with the 49ers emphasis on the pass.  My gut tells me the 49ers will focus more on the ground game this week, especially since unlike the first game, Frank Gore is not ailing.

Gore is a tough, physical runner who can be hard to tackle.  But it is important to note that he has not broken the 100-yard rushing mark since early November.  He did look more refreshed last week by rushing for 89 yards on 13 carries for 6.8 ypc average.  Before that, he had been struggling to average 4 ypc.  Rookie Kendall Hunter has been more effective at times, and certainly hurt the Giants more in the previous game, when he rushed for 40 yards on just six carries.

The heart of the 49er offense is not their quarterback, or running backs, or receivers.  It is their offensive line – one of the very best in the NFL.  There are three first-round draft picks on this line: LT Joe Staley, LG Iupati, and RT Anthony Davis.  The left side with Staley and Iupati is a particularly formidable duo.  These guys can run and pass block and they are going to be a tough matchup even for the heart of the Giants’ defense – the defensive line.  It will be strength on strength in this game.  The side that comes up on top probably will win the game.  Everyone up front for New York is going to have to buckle on their chin strap for 60 minutes (or more if necessary).  It’s going to be tough, but reward is great – a trip to the Super Bowl.

The general opinion on the 49er passing game is that Harbaugh doesn’t ask Alex Smith to do too much, that Smith is more of a “game manager.”  Well the first game against the Giants and last week’s game against the Saints show that Smith can rise to the occasion when necessary.  While I expect the 49ers to emphasize the run more this week, it would not shock me if they duplicate the strategy of the last game and come out throwing again.

Smith’s top two targets are TE Vernon Davis (67 regular-season receptions) and WR Michael Crabtree (72 catches).  There is a huge drop off after these two with the next leading receiver only have 20 regular-season receptions.  But last week, Frank Gore tied Davis as the leading receiver in the game with seven receptions.  And the last time the Giants and 49ers played, reserve tight end Delanie Walker hurt the Giants with six catches for 69 yards.   Walker has been out with a broken jaw, but could return this week.  I would expect these four to be the chief targets of concern.

Davis is obviously the headliner.  He’s an extremely athletic tight end who creates match-up problems.  He’s also coming off of a monster day against the Saints: seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.  He deserves special attention.  The 49ers also know this and will look to exploit it.  If the Giants are doubling Davis, the other defensive backs and linebackers must do a credible job in single coverage.  Don’t allow some other player to become the hero.

The 49ers don’t make many mistakes.  Smith threw only five interceptions all season.  And the 49ers only fumbled away the ball five times all year.  Can the Giants force turnovers for two weeks in a row against a team not known for making mistakes?

One final word of warning – just like on special teams – expect the unexpected.  Harbaugh may feel he can’t beat the Giants straight up.  The Giants need to watch out for some trick play or misdirection, especially early, such as a flea flicker, end around, halfback pass, etc.  In fact, I would almost count on it.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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