If there was one game on the New York Giants’ 2023 schedule that most people had chalked up as a loss before the season began, their visit to play the San Francisco 49ers, four days after playing in Arizona, was it. The 49ers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, with numerous elite players on both sides of the ball and an innovative offense-minded head coach.
To make matters worse, the Giants came to the Bay Area as the walking wounded, with four key starting players sidelined (Andrew Thomas, Saquon Barkley, Ben Bredeson, Azeez Ojulari). It’s not like the Giants were world-beaters before the injuries either, with a stirring second half comeback against possibly the worst team in the NFL only partly taking the sting away from the horrid six quarters of football that preceded it.
What could possibly go wrong? The answer was...not everything, but enough for the 49ers to wear the Giants down and win going away, 30-12. The Giants put up more of a fight than they did against Dallas, but against what may be the best team in the NFC, the final result seemed inevitable. What did we learn from this game?
The Giants actually can rush the passer
The Giants’ pass rush has been almost nonexistent through two games. The 49ers have Trent Williams, maybe the best offensive tackle in the NFL, anchoring the left side of the line, but the right side of their line entering the game was highly suspect.
Sure enough, at the start of this game, the previous futility of the pass rush was nowhere to be seen. The Giants got consistent pressure, both from the outside and up the middle, on many Brock Purdy dropbacks, and the pressure clearly affected him. There was a Kayvon Thibodeaux sighting, and Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams got pressure (including a sack that was nullified by the ridiculous NFL roughing the passer rule of DLs not being allowed to fall on the QB). Bobby Okereke got pressure on Purdy on a blitz up the middle.
As Dallas and Arizona did in previous games, the 49ers started using quick hitters to offset the pressure. Early in the game this was partly effective, but the Giants managed to hold San Francisco to a field goal, and then drove down for their own field goal to tie the game.
As the game went on, though, two things happened to slowly turn the tide in the 49ers’ favor.
The defense can’t get off the field on third down
With 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk out with a shoulder injury, and with Purdy not having the strongest arm among NFL quarterbacks anyway, it’s no surprise that San Francisco mostly utilized a short passing attack and the running game.
Time after time, the 49ers were faced with third-and-long and converted, using the Giants’ pressure against them using screen passes and allowing their skill players to thread their way through a Giants defense that doesn’t tackle well and can’t set the edge. The Giants could not stop them in third-and-15 and third-and-nine situations, and later on the 49ers scored on third-and-five.
When the 49ers weren’t torturing the Giants on screens, their running game was slicing through the Giants’ line. The defense gets a bit of a pass here since Christian McCaffrey is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He lived up to his billing, routinely shedding the first attempted tackle (although poor tackling seems to be a hallmark of this defense). But it didn’t look all that much different when Elijah Mitchell was carrying the ball. The run defense is still a soft spot for this team.
The performance of the offensive line in Arizona was a mirage
Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave are a load for any offensive line to deal with, much less one whose best player is out with an injury and that was starting two players with very little previous NFL experience. Yet the Giants’ finally came to life last week when they opened things up in the second half. Would the Giants open up the offense against a great defense?
The answer was no. Whoever was calling the plays for the Giants decided that their makeshift offensive line wasn’t up to the task of neutralizing the 49ers’ pass rush. They consistently gave Evan Neal help on the right side (not that it mattered when Daniel Bellinger didn’t even try to block Bosa and let him through for a sack that was almost a safety). When Jones did pass, it was usually quick and less than ten yards down the field. Isaiah Hodgins was targeted once. Jalin Hyatt was not targeted at all to my knowledge (I assure you I saw him on the field at least once). The passing offense was a few intermediate passes to Darren Waller and Darius Slayton, a few short routes to Wan’Dale Robinson in his first action of the season, and a few passes whose purpose remains a mystery to me to Parris Campbell. It is not yet clear to me what the Giants had in mind when they signed Campbell, because they seem to have no idea what to do with him.
There was good reason for this short passing game. We’ll have to see how many pressured dropbacks Jones had. It wasn’t as bad as in the Dallas game, but most likely Jones was pressured more than half the time. It wasn’t only Bosa, or Drake Jackson on the other side. San Francisco routinely got push up the middle. On one play Javon Hargrave just walked Shane Lemieux back into Jones’ lap as if he were a rag doll. By the third quarter it looked like men against boys.
Elite, tough football players > non-elite, not so tough players
The 49ers are a true Super Bowl contender for several reasons, two of which provide a stark contrast to this Giants team. Fittingly, in the fourth quarter, the broadcast showed the tape of Mark Bavaro’s iconic reception against the 49ers in which he dragged mutliple San Francisco defenders more than ten yards downfield before finally being tackled.
Bavaro was the epitome of the great AND tough player. The best Giants teams had a number of those players. This 49ers team has great, tough players in spades: Bosa and Hargrave on the defensive line, to be sure. Trent Williams on the offensive line (why he wasn’t thrown out for that punch, which was only called offsetting penalties, I’ll never know). The 49ers, though, have elite and tough skill players too.
George Kittle is probably the most physical, skilled tight end in the league. He routinely got yards after the catch before the defense could bring him down. Darren Waller, more of a finesse tight end by comparison, was last seen not sufficiently fighting for the ball and getting it tipped up into the air where it was intercepted (as almost all Jones’ interceptions this season have been).
Christian McCaffrey is an impressive combination of elusiveness and strength. He consistently sliced up the middle and either made Giants’ defenders miss or else dragged them with him. In Deebo Samuel they have possibly the most physical wide receiver in the NFL, yet one who can beat you with great routes, great catches, and speed.
The Giants have a much shorter list of great players, and I would be hard pressed to give you a list of Giants that impress me as being very physical: Dexter Lawrence,...
Maybe Micah McFadden can play linebacker after all
We’ll see what PFF thinks - I didn’t see him on every play. But it seemed to me that McFadden had far and away his best game as a Giant. He was flying all over the field, getting into the backfield and making tackles for losses, even defending passes. If this indicates that the light has come on for McFadden, then perhaps with Okereke, Simmons, and McFadden, the Giants may finally have a reasonably effective linebacker rotation for the first time in years.
In fact, the Giants played the 49ers tough for most of the game. They were worn down by the fourth quarter, but San Francisco does that to many of its opponents. The bad news is that in three games the Giants’ defense has given up 40, 28, and 30 points. The good news is that players like McFadden and Jason Pinnock are starting to step up.