Yes, the Giants are 3-2 on the season, but the three teams they have beaten so far have combined for only two wins. Big blue will face a much tougher challenge when they travel to San Francisco on Sunday. A win over the 49ers (4-1) would be the team’s first quality win of the season.
A glaring deficiency on defense, however, stares New York in the face as the team eyes down its fourth victory of the season. The Giants have given up 111 points through five games and an average of 372.8 yards per game, which places them just outside the bottom third of the league.
The Giants’ defense, which has not been tested by a top 10 offense yet, will be faced with the daunting task of shutting down a San Francisco offense that is far less limited than it was a season ago. It’s no surprise that they are the best rushing team in the league with an average of 196.2 yards per game, but they’re also scoring more this year, averaging 29.8 points per game as well.
One of the reasons why the 49ers’ running backs have had so much room to run is because they play behind one of the most dominant offensive lines in professional football. Of the five starters along the offensive line, former Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin is the only player shorter than 6’5”, and collectively, the unit has an average weight of 321.2 pounds.
The 49ers have done an excellent job grooming their talent up front, which exemplifies the team’s penchant for a strong running game. Two former first round picks hold down the left side of the line—guard Mike Iupati (2010) and tackle Joe Staley (2007)—earned a visit to last year’s Pro Bowl. Right tackle Anthony Davis, who was also a first round pick in 2010, has had an impressive season on the other end of the line.
New York’s front seven on defense is not undersized, nor does it lack pedigree, but it has been outmaneuvered by nearly every opposing offensive line this season. The Giants’ defense has been far from stingy as a whole, but their poor play against the run has garnered a particularly large amount of criticism.
The Giants have been especially bad at setting the edge on running plays. The defensive ends have been straying from their responsibilities, allowing running backs to break outside contain for big gains up the sideline. After Eagles running back LeSean McCoy torched New York for 121 second-half yards in Week 4, Browns running back Trent Richardson worked the Giants’ defense for 128 total yards the following week.
The ineffectiveness against the run in consecutive weeks leads us to believe that either the Giants no longer have the talent to stop premier running backs, or they are unable to figure out the antidote schematically.
However, what makes this San Francisco team so much more dangerous than it once was is its offensive versatility. The 49ers can now beat a defense in a multitude of ways rather than relying almost exclusively on Frank Gore and the power running game. Last week against the Bills, the 49ers became the first team in league history to rush for over 300 yards and pass for over 300 yards in the same game.
San Francisco’s Vernon Davis was one of the league’s top tight ends last season, but the addition of receiving threats like Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to compliment Michael Crabtree on the outside has opened up the middle of the field, allowing more room for Davis to operate. In addition to maximizing Davis’ potential, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has also found creative ways to utilize the speed of running back Kendall Hunter and wildcat quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
So far this season, the Giants have not shown the discipline on defense to effectively counter the 49ers play calling. Last week, inexperienced safety Stevie Brown bit on a play fake and was burned by the deep ball in the first quarter. Against the Browns, the Giants were able to make a comeback, but a blow like that against the 49ers may prove to be fatal.
If New York plays smart and sets the edge on defense, they’ll be far less susceptible to San Francisco’s well-timed end around and misdirection plays. If not, the Giants will be burned for several long gains.
In the end, San Francisco’s offensive efficiency will cripple the New York defense. The 49ers do not take many risks, and quarterback Alex Smith does not make many mistakes. Smith has only thrown one interception all season while maintaining a 68.6 percent completion rate.
The Giants’ defense has thrived off of takeaways this season. In the three games that they have won, the defense has forced 10 turnovers. Compare that to the one turnover they have forced in the two games they have lost.
New York will have to find a way to turn the ball over because forcing the San Francisco offense to punt multiple times will be nearly impossible. The key will be to get pressure on Smith, causing him to make mistakes. If the Giants can capitalize on those mistakes, they will have a chance to win the game.