But after an injury-plagued Week 2, the challenges looks more surmountable.
The Giants are still reeling from the loss of Sterling Shepard (toe) and Saquon Barkley (ACL), but the 49ers were absolutely pummeled by injury. San Francisco will be without their top three pass rushers as well as their top cornerback, and some of their most important players on offense.
Both teams will have more to overcome than just the players lining up on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
The opportunity is there for the Giants to come away with their second-straight win against San Francisco — the previous one being a 27-23 win back in 2018. The question is whether or not the Giants can pull it off.
Next man up
The game between the Giants and 49ers could well come down to which team is better able to overcome their injury issues. There’s plenty of X’s and O’s we could get into, but considering how hard both teams have been hit by injuries, we have to start there.
We all know that the Giants’ offense two of its best players in lost Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard. While the Giants’ injuries are bad, you could build the core of a talented defense from the players San Francisco will be without on Sunday.
- Richard Sherman (calf)
- Nick Bosa (ACL)
- Solomon Thomas (ACL)
- Dee Ford (back - day to day)
- Ronald Blair III (knee - PUP)
As of this writing, the Giants are expected to sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman to replace Barkley. The 49ers, meanwhile have agreed to terms with free agent EDGE Ziggy Ansah to help fill the void created by the loss of Bosa and Thomas. It could be worth noting that this move reunites Ansah with DL coach Kris Kocurek, who was the defensive line coach for the Detroit Lions from 2010 to 2018. Over his 5 seasons with Ansah, the EDGE had 44.0 sacks, 103 QB hits, and 57 tackles for a loss.
The question of all this is simple: Do the 49ers have enough left on defense to frustrate the Giants’ injured offense?Will the Giants be able to get Freeman up to speed and replace Shepard well-enough to attack San Francisco’s battered defense? This will likely be a test of the depth of both units as well as how well the two coaching staffs are able to adapt.
Can the Giants block ... anybody?
It’s been pretty apparent that the Giants’ offensive line has not lived up to expectations in their first two games of 2020. It doesn’t take detailed film or statistical analysis to see that the Giants’ pass protection has been spotty and their run blocking non-existent.
The Giants are clearly hoping that the newly-signed Devonta Freeman will be able to help pick up the slack on the ground, but the offensive line will still need to do its job up front. The 49ers are dealing with some potentially devastating injuries along their defensive line, but they still have formidable players in Arik Armstead, rookie Javon Kinlaw, WILL Kwon Alexander, and MIKE Fred Warner.
While the Giants obviously need to keep Armstead (who is only 26, despite feeling as though he’s been in the NFL for a decade) from wrecking their game, they can’t afford to ignore Kinlaw. The rookie out of South Carolina has a rare combination of size, length, and explosive athleticism, which is enough to make him a problem. But what makes him a threat is the fact that he had solid technique and hand usage coming out of college, which the 49ers are already refining.
.@49ers @JavonKinlaw is coming. He is learning! Not many defensive lineman know how to rush the QB coming from college. But this player is applying new moves and techniques quickly. I love the process of watching growth #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/4z41nc9aCQ— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 22, 2020
Given how the Giants have struggled blocking between the tackles, they will need to account for both Armstead and Kinlaw.
Obviously the Giants need to improve their blocking up front, but they still have their work cut out for them despite the injuries to the 49ers’ defense. The Giants simply can’t allow a third team to take away their running game while playing coverage.
Playing with play-action
So now that we’ve gone over the issues with injuries and the Giants’ struggles in blocking, what can we they do to overcome them?
The answer could well be in the play-action pass. So far the Giants haven’t made extensive use of play-action in their offense, with Daniel Jones using play-action on 17 of his 81 pass attempts (per Pro Football Reference). That’s just 20 percent of the time, but those passes account for 34 percent of his total yardage with 178 yards off of play action out of his 520 yards through two games. At the same time, they have only employed motion at the snap on 5 percent of their plays — 28th in the NFL (per ESPN).
The Giants’ offensive line ranks 28th in ESPN’s pass block win rate, holding rushers for more than 2.5 seconds on just 45 percent of drop backs. Granted, the Giants have gone against some excellent pass rushers in the first two weeks, but one of the major concerns going into this season is that they face good (or great) defensive fronts nearly every week.
The Giants have found themselves relying on quick, short passes to maintain possession of the ball and advance it down the field. And while those passes are generally safe and result in a solid completion percentage, they aren’t terribly valuable. The Giants also need to understand what they have left on their offensive roster. They can count on Golden Tate, Dion Lewis, Kaden Smith, an Devonta Freeman to run the quick game and potentially pick up yards after the catch. However, if they want to create space underneath and explosive plays, they will need to play to Evan Engram and Darius Slayton’s strengths. That means getting them involved down the field, which is a risky proposition when you can’t depend on your offensive line’s blocking.
The good news is that play-action not only does a great job of slowing down defenses by forcing them to honor their run fits, but it also doesn’t depend on how well you actually run the ball in order to work.
Considering the Giants are facing a defense that is very aggressive, but is also forced to rely on its depth. That could create opportunities for misdirection (like play-action) to lead to missed assignments and broken plays. Both Slayton and Engram are able to get down the field and be match-up problems at their respective positions, and even a fraction of a second’s worth of hesitation on the part of the defense is an opportunity. The Giants need to be looking to capitalize on every advantage and opportunity they can this year, and that means getting the defense looking where the ball isn’t going. Play-action and motion are great ways to disguise your intentions from the defense and create opportunities downfield.