The New York Giants head West this weekend to face the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (7-1). I was fortunate this week to be able to conduct an online chat with David Fucillo, the terrific editor of 'Niners Nation,' SB Nation's 49ers website.
I have done chats like these in the past, and I always enjoy them. I did something a little different with this one. Rather than posting the entire chat below, I have edited it down to the stuff I hope you will find most interesting. Check 'Niners Nation' for David's presentation of our chat, and you will likely find parts of our conversation that are probably of more interest to 49ers fans.
Anyway, the results of our chat are below.
David: How the hell did you guys lose to Seattle?
Ed: Well, I wish I had the answer to that one. I think if you were a Giants fan you would understand -- this is just how the Giants are. They do things like lose to crappy teams they should beat and then turn around and win games in New England, where no one ever wins in the regular season. Would have won the Seattle game, too, if Victor Cruz had not slipped and killed a probable game-winning drive.
Ed: So, let me ask you. What the heck has gotten into [Alex] Smith? I thought he was about to get run out of the league and now, this.
David: Well, it's amazing that he is having a solid season, but the debate rages on among 49ers fans. People still are not sure what to make of him even as the team wins.
The reason for that is that he is not really being asked to make a ton of plays. The 49ers offense is built around a power rushing attack and Alex Smith is asked to avoid making many mistakes.
At the same time, they do still rely on him to make some plays. He had the huge fourth and goal throw and he had a monster third quarter in bringing the 49ers back against the Eagles
Ed: Some things never change. No matter how much good he does there are still people who don't believe in Eli Manning.
David: They seem to be in somewhat similar situations in that regard. Smith is in a position where if the 49ers were to somehow win the Super Bowl this year, some folks would still voice complaints about Smith
Although it's not exactly parallel, Smith is kind of in a similar position to Trent Dilfer when he was starting for that Super Bowl-winning Ravens squad. I think Smith is better at this point, but it's built around the dominant defense
Ed: Well, Eli has a ring and for the past three years people have still looked at him and said he isn't good enough. Right now there is only one quarterback in the league playing better, in my mind, and that's Aaron Rodgers. I'm not saying Eli is better than Brady or Brees, because he's not. But the guy has engineered five game-winning fourth-quarter drives this year, has a fourth quarter QB rating of 120+, I think, and he's been phenomenal. No quarterback is perfect, but it's hard to play much better than Manning has so far.
The Giants live and die with Manning. The running game has been sporadic, he audibles about 40 percent of the plays at the line. This is his offense, plain and simple.
Ed: Tell me something about the 49ers. How are you viewing this game with the Giants? You consider this a big test for San Fran, or a game you guys 'should' win?
David: This is one of the bigger tests on the season. I think it's a game the 49ers can most definitely win and it would not shock me to seem them win it. At the same time, this 49ers team is very hard to figure out at times. On the one hand, they are 7-1 and there is no disputing they are one of the better teams in the NFL right now. On the other hand, they have reportedly only used something like 40-50 percent of the playbook and have not really opened things up as some have wanted/hoped/expected when Jim Harbaugh took over
The defense is playing out of its mind right now and while the secondary has some question marks, the unit as a whole is playing as well as anybody in the league
But as has been the case since Alex Smith came to town, it comes back to the offense. Frank Gore is on a historic run (the first 49ers running back ever to have five straight games with 100+ rushing yards)
But some 49ers fans worry what will happen if the 49ers have to keep pace with a high scoring attack. The defense keeps me confident the team can keep games manageable, but no defense is perfect
So in a nutshell, this could prove to be a big challenge and not some sort of gimme win
David: How do Giants fans view the game?
Ed: So, you really want a 20-17 game, not one that winds up with the Giants scoring 30+ that you need to match?
David: Exactly...the 49ers are built to win 20-17 games as well as anybody in the league
The 49ers defense and special teams can keep them in low-scoring games
Ed: As for how Giants fans view the game it's like this ... we have come to understand that this is a flawed team that hasn't run the ball as consistently as a Tom Coughlin team usually does, one that gives up too many big plays and one that doesn't look pretty. But we have also come to understand that there is no quit in this team, that there are a number of playmaking weapons on both sides of the ball and that they can beat any team in the league when they don't beat themselves. The 49ers are no exception. Of course, the Giants are also capable of occasionally laying an egg.
David: The 49ers offense often struggles to look particularly elegant in victory. They are the proverbial bull in the china shop. It's kind of ironic that Jim Harbaugh has basically instituted Mike Singletary's philosophy of football better than Mike Singletary could
Ed: So tell me what you think of Harbaugh? What has he brought to the 49ers, or changed about the culture?
David: Harbaugh is quite the character. The media gets put off because he rarely reveals much of anything in press conferences. It seems like he saves his pertinent points for the players. He has created a team dynamic that has been as instrumental as anything in getting this team on the right track
Arguably the most important thing he has brought is a phenomenal coaching staff. The 49ers coaching staff has been excellent across the board in getting the players to buy into this system
Harbaugh is a fired-up kind of guy and brings that former player instinct to the coaching ranks, without being a bit over the top like Mike Singletary was
Ed: If you could take one player off the Giants roster and put him in your lineup, who would it be?
David: It's honestly a tough call...The easiest choice would be Eli Manning. I like the role Alex Smith fills in the 49ers offense, but I think Manning could help stretch the field more. The 49ers can continue winning with Smith, but I think Manning could bring more to the table
Ed: Giants fans probably don't know the 49ers roster really well. Tell us a few players we should watch for who we might not know much about.
David: Well, Patrick Willis is the big name in the linebacker corps, but NaVorro Bowman is currently leading the team in tackles. He's in his second season and his first replacing veteran Takeo Spikes. Bowman has filled the role so well that the team has Patrick Willis playing a bit more in coverage, which has lowered his tackle total.
Also on defense, when the 49ers go into their nickel D, Aldon Smith comes on at right defensive end. He is the 49ers first round pick and was named rookie of the month in October with 6.5 sacks. He was drafted to play OLB, but the team has used him primarily as a pass rushing threat
On offense, Frank Gore is dealing with an ankle sprain and backup Kendall Hunter could get some more carries. Hunter is a rookie and has shown a lot of athleticism as a solid backup to Gore
Finally on offense, backup tight end Delanie Walker is one to watch. Because Walker and Vernon Davis are so athletic, the 49ers base formation is usually a two tight end set. Walker can make big plays in the passing game, but has improved considerably in run blocking, so he is frequently on the field
David: I'll go with the same two questions. 1) What one player would you take from the 49ers and 2) who are some under the radar guys 49ers fans should keep an eye on this Sunday?
Ed: The guy I would take from the 49ers is, at first glance, obvious ... I would jump at the chance to put Patrick Willis in a Giants uniform. The Giants could use an impact linebacker, although Kiwanuka and Michael Boley have been terrific this year. Jake Ballard has been surprisingly good at tight end, but I wouldn't mind an accomplished guy like Vernon Davis, either.
As for under the radar guys, let's start with Ballard. This is a guy who was an undrafted free agent was was on the practice squad last year. He got the job this year after Kevin Boss left for Oakland because there wasn't anybody else. Boss caught 35 balls a year ago, and Ballard already has 23 w/an average of 17.2 yards per catch. The guy is 6-foot-6, 275!
Cruz, of course, is not really under the radar anymore. Will Beatty is in his first year starting at left tackle, and has been very good. Defensively, second-year guy Linval Joseph and veterans Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard have been very good at the tackles.