Harbaugh has been the catalyst in Alex Smith's improvement.
When the San Francisco 49ers announced Jim Harbaugh as their next head coach, I was filled with mixed emotions. Was he ready to take his coaching career to the next level? Would he be just another fading memoir of another lackluster tenure that would end in his humbling return to the college ranks? Or was he the answer to getting this talented team the inspiration they needed to reach their full potential?
So far he's been the answer, and players and fans alike are fired up this season. Statistically the 49ers have week in and week out proven to be a stingy defense, giving up a league best of 14.8 points per game against top offenses like Philadelphia, Detroit and Tampa Bay.
Week 10 offers no less of a threat when the New York Giants come to town with their sixth-ranked offense. But more importantly is New York's defense and unrelenting pass rush who registered two sacks and two interceptions against New England and boast a league-best 28 sacks for the season.
Alex Smith must increase productivity in the passing game.
To beat the Giants, San Francisco needs Alex Smith to do more than just manage the game. So far this season Harbaugh has asked less of Smith, which has paid dividends in his touchdown/interception ratio and overall QB rating (10 TD, 2 INT, 97.3), but it is also the reason their offense is ranked 26th.
It's hard to not give Smith credit for his performance thus far, but a clear message must be sent by San Francisco's offense this week against a potential playoff opponent. To be considered a viable threat in the NFC, Smith must increase his productivity without reverting back to his mediocre performances of prior disheartening seasons.
This means that San Francisco will have to exploit the middle of the field with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, which brings me to the next key to victory—the tight ends.
With two of the fastest tight ends in the league, 49ers should do more to exploit other defenses to their prowess.
So far it has been a good season for San Francisco, but a less than average season for tight end Vernon Davis. Davis at 6'3", 250 presents matchup problems for most defenses because he has the agility, speed (4.38 forty yard dash) and height of an upper echelon receiver.
In eight weeks, Davis has only found the end zone three times. San Francisco possesses the weapons of a high-powered offense and has failed to implement those assets so far. This week, Smith needs to make a concentrated effort to get the ball to Davis and his counterpart Delanie Walker, who as Davis, also has three touchdowns this season.
Harbaugh must design plays that will get these two phenoms involved this week, such as splitting them out in a spread offense opposite Braylon Edwards.
To guarantee a solid performance from Smith, the offensive line, Anthony Davis and Joe Staley must contain Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul, who have accounted for 17.5 of New York's 28 sacks this season.
If Smith is forced to run for his life or hurried, the Giants' defense will capitalize and have a field day on turnovers. This threat may force Harbaugh to stay in a jumbo set with both tight ends to help neutralize Tuck and Pierre-Paul, which should open up quick tight end pops and screen plays.
Gore may be limited or out this week due to an ankle sprain.
New York is giving up 4.6 yards per carry this season, which bodes well for Frank Gore (4.9 yards per carry) and Kendall Hunter (4.5 yards per carry). Gore tweaked his ankle against the Washington Redskins and his status remains unclear, so if the rushing duties are handed down to Kendall Hunter, San Francisco still has a formidable threat on the ground with Hunter and Anthony Dixon.
Goldson is this week's x-factor.
Hard not to sound cliché but this game will come down to turnovers.Both defenses are fairly equal in takeaways. (New York 10 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries; San Francisco 10 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries.)
Eli Manning has been playing well and has been protecting the ball, but he has yet to face a defense as opportunistic as San Francisco's. Like Smith, if the 49ers can force Manning into making bad decisions by being creative with their blitz and zone blitz packages, this week can be one Manning will wish he could forget.
This week's X-factor is DaShon Goldson who has stepped up and been a lurking vulture, sniffing out pass plays and discombobulating opponents with his ferocious hits.