Three weeks ago, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese, speaking to reporters during the bye week, referred to his team’s upcoming four games against the Colts, Seahawks, 49ers and Cowboys as “murderers’ row.”
He wasn’t kidding.
The biggest problems for the 3-6 Giants has been in an area that was supposed to be a strength: the defense.
The league’s 32nd-ranked defensive unit has allowed 953 yards of total offense—448 rushing yards and 505 passing yards since returning from the bye week—while being outscored 78-41.
Things aren’t about to get any easier for New York, as this weekend, it hosts the San Francisco 49ers (5-4), a team that has had its ups and downs this season, but one that poses problems for the Giants defense because it occasionally deploys the read-option on offense.
We all know what happened to the Giants defense in Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks. Certainly, Giants followers shouldn't feel guilty if they don’t have much faith in the team turning things around this week—not given how it's played lately.
Inside the locker room, the mood is a little bit different from what it’s been in recent weeks following a loss. The players are actually showing signs of frustration over becoming a league laughingstock in the wake of their embarrassing defensive performance against Seattle.
“Nobody wants records set on them. I hate it; it still makes me sick,” said linebacker Jameel McClain.
“It’s upsetting, and that’s a good thing in my eyes, because if you’re in a locker room full of guys who are okay with how things are going, then that’s dangerous,” added linebacker Devon Kennard.
“Guys are upset, we’re fed up, and we want to get things right. We have a talented group and we want to get on the same page. That’s what we’re working toward.”
McClain, who has taken on more of a leadership role with Jon Beason on injured reserve, became slightly more animated as he spoke about having a chance to redeem himself this weekend against the 49ers' 17th-ranked NFL offense.
“The idea that I get to go back out there and hit someone and make them pay for last week—I love it,” he said.
As head coach Tom Coughlin is best known for saying, “Talk is cheap; play the game.”
This will be the 30th regular-season meeting between the Giants and 49ers. New York leads the series, 15-14, and is 8-7 against the 49ers at home.
|Giants vs. 49ers: The Competitive Edge|
The Game Plan
Giants on Offense
The 49ers have a pair of solid cornerbacks who really complement each other. Both are good overall players, though Perrish Cox is probably a bit better in pass coverage, while Chris Culliver is better in run support.
Let’s talk about New York's running game first. San Francisco boasts the league’s seventh-best run defense, allowing opponents an average of 91.2 yards per game. It’s no secret that the Giants’ run blocking has been exposed as being bad, but we think that’s because rookie Andre Williams has had trouble with setting up his blockers and finding creases.
Remember, this is the same offensive line for New York that Rashad Jennings ran behind prior to suffering his knee injury. So, remember, Jennings has had success running behind this line.
As previously mentioned, Culliver as being better in run support, and he demonstrated that ability in San Francisco's Week 10 win over the New Orleans Saints, when he stopped running back Mark Ingram for a one-yard loss on this play.
Here, Culliver exercised patience and correctly anticipated that Ingram was going to attempt to cut to the outside, where he had a block. The corner then managed to get himself into position, square up and take on Ingram, dropping him for a loss in what was a solid defensive play.
Then there are San Francisco defensive ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith. Per Pro Football Focus, McDonald, who has a knee injury, has accumulated 24 tackles in 156 run snaps, good enough for a 9.6 percent run stoppage percentage.
Moving to New York's passing game, the strategy will be to get rid of the ball quickly, rather than trying to exploit Cox, who, per PFF, has a 59.7 quarterback rating against, which is actually better than Richard Sherman’s 72.6 rating.
Cox has been so good in coverage that no receiver this season has exceeded 65 receiving yards against him. I do, however, like the thought of Beckham against Cox in the short- to intermediate-range throws, because Beckham has a nice double-move, such as what he did to Sherman last week, which enables him to create separation and make big plays downfield.
Giants on Defense
The Giants are probably not going to be gouged in the running game by San Francisco nearly as much as they were by Seattle. Spencer Paysinger will get a chance to finally get on the field, thanks to the strong possibility of Jacquian Williams (concussion) being sidelined, and that could work to New York's benefit in stopping the run.
Going back to last season, when Paysinger and Williams split the snaps at weak-side linebacker, Paysinger mostly handled the running downs and did far better than Williams.
Here, though, is the tradeoff. Paysinger isn’t quite as athletic as Williams, and there is a legitimate concern that 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in the seam could very well be in for a big day, especially since quarterback Colin Kaepernick has more success working the middle of the field.
Per data compiled from PFF, Kaepernick has a 102.7 passer rating on passes thrown to the middle of the field versus a 100.9 rating on balls through to the left and a 91.7 rating on passes thrown to the right.
So what do the Giants need to do to make sure that the 49ers don’t hurt them? Blitzing Kaepernick may not be advisable, given his ability to escape pressure and make plays. When blitzed, Kaepernick actually has a better quarterback rating (104.2) than he does when he’s not blitzed (87.4), per PFF.
The front four, which so often failed to contain Russell Wilson in Week 10, has to do a better job, pure and simple, particularly the defensive ends. If the Giants can keep Kaepernick in the pocket, they should be able to limit the damage he is capable of doing.
Getting back to Davis...jamming the big tight end rather than letting him take off under his own terms could help take him out of the game. Kaepernick’s passing often relies on timing, and the Giants have to find a way to disrupt that.
The last4 9ers weapon worth noting is running back Frank Gore. One of the biggest differences between Gore and Marshawn Lynch of Seattle is that the former is more of a downhill runner, who is less likely to cut back against the grain.
Gore is also very good at letting his blocking develop and following it as he did on this four-yard touchdown run last week against the Saints.
On this play, Gore, who has excellent vision, spotted the spy, Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (yellow circle), who was sitting there waiting for him to come at him.
Gore, seeing that he had the blocking he needed to the left of the formation, adjusted his path and headed left, following his blockers and finishing off the play with the six points.
Opponent Spotlight: ILB Chris Borland
Rookie inside linebacker Chris Borland has been nothing short of phenomenal since getting significant playing time while replacing the injured Patrick Willis, now on IR. A third-round draft pick this year, Borland posted double-digit tackles in his last two games.
There is very little that the 5’11”, 247-pound Borland doesn’t do well. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has a comprehensive breakdown of what Borland brings to the table.
To summarize Mayock's analysis, Borland is proficient both against the run and in pass coverage, which makes him a rare specimen, given that inside linebackers generally excel in one or the other.
If there is one downside to Borland, it is that he’s had some shoulder issues, including a current problem that limited him in today’s practice and put him on the injury report.
Eric Branch of SFGate.com notes that Borland had multiple shoulder injuries while at Wisconsin, two of which required “three shoulder surgeries, two on his left shoulder.”
To summarize, Borland is proficient against both the run and in coverage, which makes him a rare specimen given that inside linebackers generally excel in one or the other.
If Borland is able to play, he could create some headaches for a Giants running game that is hoping to have Rashad Jennings back this week, following a four-week absence from a knee injury.
It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who loves him some “11 personnel,” mixes in a bit more two-tight end sets or involves the fullback more on running plays this week in order to neutralize the dynamic rookie linebacker.
|Giants vs. 49ers: Injury Report (as of 11/12/2014)|
|RB Peyton Hillis (concussion) - DNP||CB Tramaine Brock (hamstring) - DNP|
|DT Cullen Jenkins (calf) - DNP||WR Bruce Ellington (ankle) - DNP|
|DE Damontre Moore (shoulder) - DNP||DE Justin Smith (not injury related) - DNP|
|LB Jacquian Williams (concussion) - DNP||S Jimmie Ward (foot) - DNP|
|S Nat Berhe (ankle)||DT Ian Williams (fibula) - DNP|
|TE Daniel Fells (neck)||LB Chris Borland (shoulder) - Limited|
|RB Rashad Jennings (knee)||RB Frank Gore (hip) - Limited|
|DE Mathias Kiwanuka (knee)||DE Ray McDonald (knee) - Limited|
|LB Dan Skuta (ankle) - Limited|
|S Eric Reid (ankle) - Full|
|Source: NY Giants, SF 49ers|
Key Giants Injury: Running Back Peyton Hillis
The Giants are extremely optimistic that they will have running back Rashad Jennings back this week after he missed four games with a knee injury.
While that optimism is real, there are concerns about the rest of the running back corps, a unit that is unlikely to have Peyton Hillis in the lineup against San Francisco.
For starters, there are questions regarding the rust on Jennings. While he has done everything possible to keep himself in prime condition during his rehab, he has not been on the field in more than a month, so it's wise not to count on him looking like the runner he was prior to the injury, at least not right away.
Further, if the Giants offense cannot sustain drives, that probably won’t help Jennings in getting back into a rhythm.
Will Jennings get at least 15 carries? If he’s good to go, that is the plan, but if he has any setbacks with the knee—and make no mistake about it, he’s going to take hits to that knee—the Giants may have to make Andrew Williams the feature back.
Williams has given a solid effort, but right now, his experience is lacking, mainly as a receiver out of the backfield. Per PFF, Hillis, who has caught 71.4 percent of the balls thrown his way and who has 98 yards after the catch, is the only running back with a positive pass-receiving grade.
If Jennings needs a blow while he gets his feet back under him, this could be a game in which fullback Henry Hynoski, who’s shown in the past that he has reliable hands as a receiver, gets a pass or two thrown his way.
As for Orleans Darkwa, whom the Giants just added to their roster on Wednesday, he might not see the field this week on offense (assuming he is even active). It will take him a little bit of time to grasp the concepts of the Giants’ offensive playbook.
The best-case scenario is that Jennings makes it through the game and gets his feet back underneath him. Like anything else, it’s a risk, and right now, the Giants are thin at running back, despite the addition of Darkwa.
With the exception of their 31-17 beatdown of the St. Louis Rams, all of San Francisco's victories have been decided by nine points or fewer.
On the other side of the coin, when the Giants have won, they have done so by at least 10 points. When they have lost, it has been by an average of 18.1 points per setback.
If there is one area that could potentially keep the Giants in the game this week, it’s their offense. As noted above, 15 or more carries out of Jennings will go a long way toward setting up the pass, which, by the way, was good last week against Seattle’s legendary “Legion of Boom" secondary.
While it's unlikely that the Giants defense won’t have another meltdown like the one against the Seahawks, they have historically struggled against a read-option offense powered by a mobile quarterback.
Toss into the mix that the 49ers have better receiving weapons than the Seahawks, in addition to a punishing downhill runner, and the best that the Giants can hope for this weekend from the defense is that the score in a losing effort is going to be closer than it has been all season.
49ers 30, Giants 20
Season Prediction Record: 6-3
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted (subscription required).
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football and The SportsXchange. All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.