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Giants-49ers: When San Francisco has the ball

Can the Giants slow the 49ers offense

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

After narrowly escaping a devastating loss against the Arizona Cardinals, the New York Giants will face the undefeated San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Thursday night. The 49ers are 2-0 and just scored a road 30-23 victory in Los Angeles against the Rams.

2022 Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, has recovered from his UCL injury that was sustained in the NFC Championship loss vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. Purdy, along with a diversified rushing attack constructed by Kyle Shanahan, leads one of the more potent and explosive offenses in the league.

The 49ers scored 30 points in each of their first two games. The 49ers embarrassed the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1, 30-7. This Thursday Night Football matchup is the home opener for San Francisco.

Offensive statistics

The 49ers are currently third in scoring offense, third in rushing offense with an average of 173 rushing yards per game, and 16th in passing offense with an average of 202 passing yards per game. Sure, Purdy was the last pick in the draft and doesn’t necessarily have tantalizing physical gifts, but his success must be measured through efficiency.

San Francisco didn’t need to throw the ball around the yard in the first two weeks of the season. Purdy’s gift, and the reason why he’s so effective, is his ability to keep the offense in rhythm and on schedule. His accuracy and timing to maximize Shanahan’s route concepts - that are schemed magnificently - is the reason why he appeals to Shanahan in the first place.

He missed a few deeper throws in Sunday’s win, and that could be one area that isn’t crisp, but he does well off play action and currently represents the offense with the best EPA in the league. They’re first in total EPA per play, rushing EPA, and second in throwing EPA. Purdy has thrown for 426 yards with two touchdowns, and a 7.9 yards per attempt average.

The 49ers are balanced with their run-pass splits through two games. Purdy is in shotgun 62% of the time, and 21 personnel is the 49ers primary package; they use 21 personnel 43% of the time and 11 personnel 42% of the time. They also use 22-personnel 8% of the time. Their primary structure is 2x2 sets (47% of the time).

San Francisco’s rushing attack is led by Christian McCaffrey, who took 100% of the running back snaps in Week 2. Backup running back Elijah Mitchell is talented but is hardly seeing the field. McCaffrey currently sports a 5.33 yards after contact number, which ranks third in the NFL behind Breece Hall (Jets) and Chuba Hubbard (Panthers).

McCaffrey is an explosive play threat waiting to happen; he already has six rushes of 10 or more yards, with three of them being more than 40 yards. He currently averages 6.4 yards per rush and his receiving ability has yet to be actualized this season. McCaffrey has just six catches on seven targets for 36 yards.

Star wide receiver Deebo Samuel received five carries against the Rams; several were end-arounds. The Giants struggled to contain the edge against James Conner and the Cardinals; to say I’m slightly worried about the 49ers rushing attack would be an understatement.

The 49ers complement their rushing capabilities with talented playmakers at other positions. Brandon Aiyuk leads the team with 172 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He and Deebo Samuel each have 11 catches. Purdy missed him on a go-ball against the Rams that surely would have gone for six. Aiyuk is dealing with a shoulder issue that has led to fewer snaps. He was limited in Tuesday’s walkthrough.

George Kittle, who dealt with a groin issue through training camp, only has six catches for 49 yards through two games. He could be a sleeping Giant in this game after Zach Ertz and Trey McBride combined for eight catches for 88 yards.

Trent Williams is one of the best left tackles in the league. The rest of the line consists of Colton McKivitz on the right side, Spencer Burford, and Aaron Banks at guard, with Jake Brendel at center. On the season, Brendel currently has a 0.0 pass-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus; Dexter Lawrence will look to exploit that matchup.

Giants game plan

McCaffrey currently leads the league in rushing, yards after contact, and missed tackles forced. McCaffrey has a total of 268 rushing yards, and Bijan Robinson (Falcons) is second in the league with 180.

San Francisco runs a lot of outside zone, but there are several tags off the rushing scheme that make it more exotic. They will motion a receiver or tight end to lead block off the zone and run misdirections off that look. The 49ers employ a tight end and run 21 personnel with fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who aligns all over the backfield and gives San Francisco advantageous blocking angles and a versatile weapon that must also be accounted for as a receiver.

Juszczyk was used in split-back shotgun to set up counter runs (two pullers). One of the biggest vulnerabilities for the 2022 Giants was fitting the counter runs, and the addition of Bobby Okereke hasn’t smoothed that issue over yet. I expect the Giants to attempt to gap out the offense with middle-of-the-field closed looks. New York’s primary focus has to be stop the run and get Purdy into second- or third-and-long situations where Martindale can send pressure and maybe get the first sack of the season for the Giants.

A 21-personnel package with Juszczyk and George Kittle is a massive pain for the Giants. The Giants are going to need better effort and sturdier edges from their outside linebackers, specifically Kayvon Thibodeaux and Jihad Ward. Outside runs have destroyed the Giants over the last two seasons, and New York is set to face one of the best-rushing teams in the league, with one of the best-rushing designers in Kyle Shanahan.

Martindale is going to make Purdy beat the Giants with his arm; but make no mistake about it, this will be an evolving chess match between Shanahan and Martindale. New York may employ more base personnel, and, if Micah McFadden is the starter, Shanahan is going to look to get McCaffrey isolated on the second-year linebacker.

He’s not the biggest or the strongest, but the 23-year-old quarterback should be able to establish a rhythmic passing offense against a Giants’ team that allowed Josh Dobbs to operate in rhythm. The Cardinals used simple West Coast passing concepts to matriculate the football down the field.

New York appeared uncertain with passing routes off and fell victim to the sail concept off play action several times while in Cover-3, which they predominantly ran. The Cardinals' quick passing attack slid through the Giants like a knife through warm butter for much of the game on Sunday.

Purdy currently leads the NFL in pressure percentage; he was pressured on 40% of his dropbacks through two weeks of the season, and he was sacked four times. The Giants were tentative blitzing Josh Dobbs at only a 14.3% rate.

Against a team like the 49ers, who run the football so effectively, the Giants could look to run blitz and fill gaps. That sounds good on paper, but the precise nature of the 49ers play action passing coupled with the Giants' continuing issues fitting the run give me pause; if they miss on the blitz, McCaffrey could be gone.

When Martindale is in Cover-1, the Giants will fiddle technique (play in and out on RB) McCaffrey. However, Purdy has mobility. The Giants can have excellent coverage in man, but four eyes on McCaffrey could lead to rushing opportunities for Purdy, which we saw on Josh Dobbs’ rushing touchdown in Week 2.

The rookie corners will have their hands full with Samuel and Aiyuk (if he plays), but who is going to assume the responsibility of George Kittle in Cover-1? This could be handled by both safeties interchangeably, but the initial responsibility may likely go to Xavier McKinney.

Final thoughts

I can already see a backside guard, Juszczyk, and Kittle executing counter off a down block from Trent Williams. The Giants’ defense was lucky that Daniel Jones and the offense woke up on Sunday. Even after the first Giants’ touchdown, the Cardinals drove down the field and scored themselves.

The Giants could be short-handed on offense, but I’m still very worried about this defense against the 49ers. I’m mostly concerned with stopping the run, but the inability to do that will result in more play-action attempts as the Giants look to compensate for their rush defense.

If New York wins this game, they have to seize upon any San Francisco mistake. If Purdy puts the ball into a precarious position, the Giants must come away with that takeaway - which would be their first in 2023. Forcing the 49ers into longer second and third-down opportunities could lead to more pass-rushing chances for the Giants. If the Giants pass rushers are dialed in, they could harass and get after Purdy.

This game is a mismatch that favors the 49ers from everything we have witnessed in 2023. The Giants can’t stop the run - the 49ers are first in the league in rushing; the Giants have miscommunications run & pass - the 49ers are the most efficient team according to EPA. This could be a long Thursday night for the Giants. But, as some say, Any Given Sunday...or Thursday? You get the picture.