Lessons from San Fran: Giants can win

Posted Jan. 16, 2012 @ 4:09 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

If there's something to be learned from the Giants' 27-20 loss to the 49ers back in Week 10, it's that they can match up with the 49ers and beat them in the second meeting, which will happen in Sunday's NFC championship game in San Francisco. The opportunities to win the game played on Nov. 13 were there, and though the teams have changed since then, the Giants will use the same line of thinking when they rewatch that tape, just as they did in the previous loss to the Packers prior to Sunday's upset in Green Bay.

The PFW Spin

The Giants were shorthanded in the first meeting with the Niners, not having Ahmad Bradshaw in the game and forced to run Brandon Jacobs 18 times and D.J. Ware nine more. The offensive line was just starting to find its way prior to that game, and early on the Giants had success at the line of scrimmage. Although the Niners feature one of the league's most fundamentally sound defenses and one of the strongest units against the run, the Giants will see on the tape that opportunities to run the ball were available.

Early on, the 49ers sat back a little defensively — much as they did in the first drive against the Saints on Saturday — almost feeling out what the Giants were trying to do. They didn't pressure much or feature many complex defensive looks. But it was Eli Manning and the passing game that was featured prominently early on. He started out hot (10-for-10 passing, 102 yards), but the Giants bogged down in the red zone and came away with only two field goals.

As the game moved into the second half, Manning appeared to be a little frustrated by the Niners' limiting defense and started to force some passes. New York had a good game plan that featured less of TE Jake Ballard, who was just starting to emerge as a force, and more of WR Mario Manningham, who often found himself matched up on Niners nickel CB Chris Culliver. The Giants viewed that as a mismatch and exploited it several times. But Manning tried in vain twice to get it to Victor Cruz late in the first half: one resulted in a Cruz drop and on the next play, Carlos Rogers made an interception in which he had perfect trail position with safety help over the top.

As the 49ers' pressure increased late in the game, Manning started getting off his spots, missing open receivers — Cruz once, Hakeem Nicks another time and, on the final drive of the game, a wide-open Manningham down the seam on a pass that was maybe six inches overthrown. On the final few drives, the 49ers allowed the Giants to hit some check-down options such as Ware and TE Bear Pascoe, but they couldn't consistently get the big plays to Cruz and Nicks. On Manning's second interception, Manningham was to blame: He stopped running his route vs. man coverage and allowed the defender to beat him to the ball on a turnover that set up a 49ers touchdown to make it 27-13.

Defensively, the Giants missed on several chances to sack 49ers QB Alex Smith, which is something that can't happen Sunday. The Niners' approach will look far different this game as three of their top four receivers in the Week 10 contest — Braylon Edwards, Delanie Walker and Ted Ginn Jr. — might not be factors. Edwards has been cut, Walker is hurt and might not play and Ginn is lightly featured on offense these days.

RB Frank Gore was a nonfactor in the first matchup (six rushes, zero yards) as he was beset by knee and ankle problems. That turned the ball over to Kendall Hunter, who caught the Giants off guard with his speed a few times as they were screaming up field trying to sack Smith, and had a 17-yard TD run. They'll need better lane responsibility if they want to contain the run again.

The Niners tried to move Smith out of the pocket on sprint-outs, bootlegs and quicker passes to get the ball out of his hands and establish rhythm. They consistently attacked the middle of the field, as then-MLB Greg Jones (his role has been significantly reduced since then) was caught out of position on several plays and completely busted a man coverage on TE Vernon Davis' TD catch. Crossing routes were big in this game, so the Giants must collapse the middle of the pocket, not let Smith step up against the rush and find open receivers in the soft spot of the defense. He also ran for a few big first downs when the Giants were in man coverage and not looking in the backfield.

The Niners will have some plays in this game the Giants have not seen — count on it. Davis' game-winning TD against the Saints was a play that San Francisco installed last Wednesday. Jim Harbaugh called for a surprise onside kick against the Giants in Week 10, a huge momentum play in the first half that caught the Giants napping. The Niners always have a gadget play offensively at the ready. Harbaugh does a great job of finding game-specific plays handy to catch the opponent off guard.

But the Giants will be ready. Watching the tape of the first contest will show them the missed opportunities that were available to steal the game. Also, Cruz was still having drop problems at the time. Bradshaw didn't play. It was a different offensive line. The Giants' pass rush is far better now. Michael Boley (two surprise sacks Sunday) is fully healthy, something that wasn't the case in the previous meeting.

The Niners also have adapted and improved in certain areas, but they have not made as many strides as a team as the Giants have since the teams' Week 10 meeting.