Approach to the Game – New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers, October 14, 2012: There was a time when the Giants and 49ers had one of the best non-divisional rivalries in football. In the early 1980’s, it seemed as if San Francisco was a perennial playoff roadblock for any Super Bowl aspirations the Giants might have. That changed in 1985 and 1986. With each team having two playoff victories against the other, the epoch came in the 1990 NFC Championship Game at Candlestick. The heavily-favored 49ers were supposed to easily sweep aside the Giants en route to their “three-peat” championship season. Instead we were left with this lasting memory…
The Giants-49ers rivalry lost its luster over the course of the next two decades. But the warm tinders were sparked once again by the 2011 NFL season. The 49ers defeated the Giants during the regular season but the Giants once again defeated the favored 49ers in the NFC Championship Game…
My formative football years were the 1980s. My animosity towards the 49ers emanates from that decade. But I don’t like the 2011-12 version of the team either. Jim “Danny Ainge” Harbaugh is a good coach, but he is also a whiney bitch. And his team can moan all they want about the Giants stealing a game at Candlestick last year, but the Giants fairly and squarely walked off THEIR field as NFC Champions for the second time in each team’s history. Were the screw ups by Kyle Williams huge? Yes. But so was allowing Eli Manning to throw for two touchdown passes, including on 3rd-and-15. So was holding Alex Smith to 12 pass completions.
Now the 49ers are talking revenge. I’m sorry but beating a team in Week 6 doesn’t exactly make up for blowing an NFC Championship Game. But if that’s where that team and its fans get their ego satisfaction from, so be it. In the meantime, even with key part missing or banged up, the NFL Champion New York Giants – and yes, they are still NFL Champions – will visit the City by the Bay and try to give those mean and tough 49ers a game. Perhaps the Giants should forfeit? Nah, I think they will show up and see what happens.
Giants on Offense: No doubt that the 49ers have arguably the best defense in all of football. They are currently ranked second in the NFL in yards per game allowed (262.6), second in passing yards per game allowed (181.2), and seventh in rushing yards per game allowed (81.4). In the past two games, the 49ers’ defense has allowed a total of 3 points.
This is not a defense you want to face missing key offensive components or having key offensive components not playing near full strength. But that will likely be the case with the Giants with WR Hakeem Nicks (foot/knee), TE Martellus Bennett (knee), and HB Andre Brown (concussion) ailing. The Giants need Nicks and Bennett in particular to play and hopefully play reasonably well. Bennett has become a critical blocker and receiver in the Giants’ offense. And Nicks is a game-changer.
The strength of the 49er 3-4 defense is their front seven. NT Isaac Sopoago is tough to move out and RDE Justin Smith is a Pro Bowl talent and an inspirational leader up front. He’s given the Giants fits. LDE Ray McDonald sacked Eli Manning 2.5 times in the NFC Championship Game. Nevertheless, the heart of the defense however is the best linebacking group in the game. It doesn’t get much better than inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They can do it all – stuff the run, rush the passer, and cover. The 49ers don’t have to substitute on defense for these guys. And if those two weren’t problematic enough, the outside guys – Aldon Smith (4.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (3 sacks) – can rush the passer. Long story short – these guys are extremely difficult to run against and they can rush the passer with the best of them. And the pass rush heat in this 3-4 defense can come from a number of directions, including the secondary.
One improvement the Giants will have this year is that their offensive tackles are much better pass blockers than the two tackles who started in the playoff game. Will Beatty and Sean Locklear have been playing well. And they have been getting good support from Martellus Bennett and Bear Pascoe. That’s why Bennett’s presence is so critical. You want to give the line more help, and you want those 49er linebackers not just worrying about the wide receivers and backs in pass coverage.
Needless to say, the offensive line, tight ends, and backs need to pass protect much, much better than the Championship Game. Eli was hit more than 20 times in that game. If Eli has time, he and his receivers can do some damage against a good, but somewhat overrated secondary. If Hakeem Nicks can play, and if he can play at a reasonably high level, that will make a tremendous difference. Normally, against a good pass rush team like the 49ers, you tend to want to get rid of the ball quicker and possibly dump it off more to your backs and tight ends, but the 49er linebackers are excellent in coverage. So I expect the Giants to take most of their shots down the field. That’s on the offensive line. They have to give Eli time. And the receivers have to get open. Hopefully, we’ll see the version of Nicks we saw against the Buccaneers and not the one we saw against the Cowboys. The Giants will also need Domenik Hixon to play a strong game as the third receiver. Will Martellus Bennett’s knee allow him to threaten the defense down the field?
It’s pretty obvious that the coaching staff still doesn’t fully trust David Wilson yet. Last week, even with a decent lead, Wilson only got two touches while Ahmad Bradshaw carried the ball 30 times with Andre Brown out. Unlike many teams, it’s not like the Giants to let a player play right away coming off of a concussion. It is likely Bradshaw will have to carry a very heavy load against a very physical defense. The problem with playing Wilson this week is this is exactly the type of defense that can cause a rookie running back problems in pass protection. The blitz can come from anywhere in a 3-4 defense and the 49er linebackers and safeties are pretty big and physical. That all said, Bradshaw can’t play every snap. And Wilson has the type of game-breaking ability to make a difference.
The Giants have to remain balanced in this game or Eli will get killed. But I don’t expect the Giants to be able to run the ball much. But if they can generate 70-80 yards on the ground, that should be sufficient. The real key is going to be the play of Eli and his receivers, combined with pass protection. Don’t expect a lot of points. The Giants scored only 20 points in both games against the 49ers last seasons.
Most importantly, don’t turn the football over. It’s going to be a close game in the 4th quarter. Make the plays at the end of the contest to win the game.
Giants on Defense: Assuming the Giants can only score around 20 points against the 49ers, it’s obvious that much of the onus (or omus as John Madden would say) will be on the Giants’ defense. There has been a lot of focus on the missing pass rush, but the main effort this week must be on stopping the run. When you play the 49ers, it’s all about stopping the run. San Francisco is the #1 rushing team in the NFL, averaging an incredible 196.2 yards per game.
The problem for the Giants is the missing/injured parts. Chris Canty doesn’t return for another week. Rocky Bernard (hip) is still banged up. And Kenny Phillips (knee) is out.
The 49ers have a very good, tough, and physical offensive line. They have invested a lot of high draft picks in that unit. And you have to think that Jim Harbaugh is going to test the health of Bernard inside, attempt to wear down both starting defensive tackles in order to get Markus Kuhn and Marvin Austin more on the field, and also wear down the Giants’ defense ends who haven’t been too sharp against the run all year. Plus, it’s tough to pin your ears back and rush the passer when your opponent is not in third-and-long.
The Giants have to stop the run. It’s that simple. But that is easier said than done. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are averaging about 5.5 yards per carry. The 49ers run a lot of end arounds with their wide receivers for good yardage. And they switch things up with some option type plays with QB Colin Kaepernick. Even starting QB Alex Smith has rushed for over 100 yards this year. The 49ers pound the football with an old-fashioned, smash-mouth attack. They stay head of the chains, keep down and distances manageable, and control the clock.
The defensive line, linebackers, and secondary are going to have to tightly buckle up those chin straps and get nasty. This is old-fashioned football. Play with strength, leverage, and power. Out-will and out-last your opponent for four quarters (and over time if necessary).
I do expect shenanigans from Harbaugh early. I think he knows the Giants will be playing run first and foremost. The best way to take pressure off of Alex Smith is to throw when you least expect it. The 49ers did this in the regular-season game last year. Smith threw the football more than anticipated. I would be very wary of play-action passes early. I would also be very wary of misdirection and trick plays early, especially with Kenny Phillips out. The 49ers will try to take advantage of Stevie Brown at safety.
The loss of Kenny Phillips and suspension of Will Hill also really hurts in terms of coverage of TE Vernon Davis. Phillips and Hill have the athleticism to play with Davis. Now the Giants may be in a difficult position where they have to match-up Antrel Rolle more on Davis, thus putting pressure on Brown and Tyler Sash not to mess up in other areas of the field. Or can the Giants risk having a guy like Jacquian Williams or Keith Rivers stick more with Davis? Do they have the speed to do so?
Davis is a favorite target of Alex Smith. So is WR Michael Crabtree. If you can cover both of these guys, you take away Smith’s two security blankets. The Giants can’t allow Crabtree to have a big game or they are in trouble. Mario Manningham has been making more plays than Randy Moss, but both obviously can do some damage if you are not careful. The 49ers have not thrown to their backs as much this year, but that could change in this game as well. Keep in mind, Harbaugh and the 49ers have circled this game for some time. They will have something especially designed for the Giants.
Giants on Specials: Special teams helped to decide both Giants-49ers games last season. The 49ers ran a successful onsides kick in the regular-season game and also had four field goals, including a 52-yarder. In the post-season game, the Giants recovered two turnovers on punt coverage and kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Every special teams player on the Giants’ roster has to go into this game realizing he can be the hero.