The New York Giants have put together four fairly solid performances since dropping their opener to Dallas. But the three teams the G-men have beaten during that stretch have a combined record of 2-12 this season. Against the two opponents they've faced who are currently .500 or better, they're 0-2.
That doesn't bode well for what might go down Sunday when New York takes on the San Francisco 49ers, who have won their last two games with over 1,000 yards of offense and by a combined score of 79-3.
Regardless, here's a game plan for how Big Blue can pull it off.
On offense: Move Victor Cruz around and take advantage of a weaker-than-usual pass rush
Not only have the 49ers struggled to bring heat consistently on defense, but pressure rarely flusters Eli Manning anyway. Blitzing works to Manning's advantage, and that's been the case especially this season, with the offensive line exceeding expectations in every respect.
Besides, with the Giants suddenly dangerous on the ground, San Francisco won't be able to send the house to compensate for Aldon Smith and Justin Smith if those two continue to struggle.
Carlos Rogers will likely be charged with covering Victor Cruz all day, which works to New York's advantage in more ways than one. First, Cruz killed Rogers the majority of the time when they faced each other in 2011, and Rogers has struggled with the pass rush not being as effective early this season. Second, forcing Rogers into the slot creates some serious mismatches for Manning to take advantage of on the outside.
Tarrel Brown did an OK job against Hakeem Nicks last year, and Nicks isn't 100 percent anyway. But if Chris Culliver is forced to face Ramses Barden often, that could present an opportunity. Culliver has been good at avoiding getting beat deep, but Barden has five inches on him and could be a key to moving the chains for much of the day.
But this isn't a clear mismatch, either, because Culliver fared very well against the 6'4" Michael Jenkins in Week 3 and helped keep Calvin Johnson in check in Week 2.
It probably goes without saying that there's really nothing exploitable when we're looking at the league's best defense. Instead, there are small potential openings that have to be taken advantage of. Manning should again be able to work through progressions against this defense, so he'll have to identify a coverage and attack.
Cruz should probably be the first read often, because he's the team's most reliable receiver and he had Rogers' number for much of last season.
An apt approach to that matchup might be to move Cruz out wide more often than usual. Per Pro Football Focus, Rogers has been much better covering receivers in the slot this year than he has been outside, and Cruz has actually caught more passes per target out wide than in the slot.
On defense: Make Alex Smith prove it
The Giants have not historically been a heavy blitzing team, mainly because their front four has been good enough to get the job done on its own. But with Chris Canty hurt, Justin Tuck in the witness protection program and Osi Umenyiora struggling to get consistent pressure, that hasn't been the case this year.
Alex Smith is off to a great start, with eight touchdowns, only one interception, a completion percentage of 68.6 (fourth highest in football) and even a YPA of 7.9 (sixth in the league). But Smith has benefited greatly from a) not having faced too many quality pass rushes, and b) having the league's best running game.
While under pressure last year, Smith was sacked 44 times and completed just 42 percent of his passes, per PFF. For context, dudes like Colt McCoy and Rex Grossman fared better in such situations. While facing pressure this year, he's been sacked 12 times already and has only increased that completion percent to 43. And ESPN reports that "when under duress or hit," Smith's completion percentage is a league-low 21.4.
The Giants' predicament is trying to apply that pressure to force Smith to struggle while not becoming vulnerable against the run. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are averaging a ridiculous 5.5 yards per carry, and the Niners have far and away the best rushing attack in the game through Week 5.
What should the Giants focus on more?
Again, I wish there was an obvious answer, but the key might be to attack early and hope that the run D can hold up and then readjust at halftime.
The Giants have given up 4.5 yards per rushing attempt this year, which isn't good, but the majority of the rushing yards they've allowed have come in the second half. They kept DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy in check early, even when focusing elsewhere, but they became worn down in the third and fourth quarter in both cases.
They've also been much better against the run when they've had Keith Rivers on the field, and Rivers is expected to return from injury Sunday. If I'm Perry Fewell, I wouldn't be afraid to send Rivers and Jacquian Williams out there to deal with Gore and Co. while using Mathias Kiwanuka or Chase Blackburn to assist with the pass rush.
If that plan works despite not involving the struggling Michael Boley and his $5 million contract, then so be it.