The story of the 2015 San Francisco 49ers defense begins with a string of retirements, a new coach, and a seemingly glum outlook on the future. Yet, here we are in October and the 49ers are fielding a competitive team that held the Green Bay Packers to just seven points in the first half of last week's game.
However, their season long totals aren't quite so pretty. After a brilliant showing in Week 1 -- when the Niners held the Minnesota Vikings to just three points -- they have somewhat crumbled on one side of the ball in each of their last three games. Last week, their offense let them down in what was a very winnable game. The two weeks prior to that, their opponents scored a combined 90 points (though you can subtract 14 of those for a pair of Colin Kaepernick pix-sixes).
Will this "Jekyll and Hyde" team show up as their Week 1 counterparts, or will the New York Giants see their ugly side?
Stats At A Glance
|Points Per Game||Total Yards||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards|
|Giants' Offense||25.5 (9th)||335.8 (22nd)||242.8 (19th)||93.0 (24th)|
|49ers' Defense||27.5 (28th)||377.2 (23rd)||263.2(21st)||114.0 (20th)|
Eli Manning has had his moments this year -- both good and bad. For the first two weeks, we saw some poor time management cost the team two games (though the defense helped). In the two games since, not much has changed. We still see a lot of frantic gesticulation as the clock winds towards zero. We still see wasted timeouts. But hey, at least he isn't turning the ball over.
Wait, he wasn't turning the ball over. Past tense. I'm not going to overreact to one interception in the Buffalo Bills game, but it did come at a particularly inopportune time and Manning goes up against the 49ers defense for the first time since his five-interception debacle last November. Would anyone be surprised if this is the game where it all goes a bit south?
With so many top personnel likely sitting this one out, Manning and the Giants can't afford to treat the 1-3 Niners as a cake-walk. This has trap game written all over it. Manning is more than capable of picking apart a mediocre secondary and exploiting some young linebackers with underneath passes, but if San Francisco can force a mistake or two early, then things could snowball.
Manning has been sacked just four times this year for a total of five yards. As far as bad plays go, averaging less than 2 yards lost on each one is pretty good. It's about on par as throwing the ball away, although of course, there is the issue of fumbles, but the offensive line isn't solely responsible for those.
For the most part, this line has been an admirable group of over-achievers. The interior -- composed of Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, and Geoff Schwartz -- are up there with the best right now. Unfortunately, they're flanked by Marshall Newhouse and Ereck Flowers, though there is a case to be made that Flowers is performing as well as one could expect an injured rookie left tackle possibly could.
That said, he will still be a target for the 49ers defense. Their hefty 3-4 will likely aim to occupy the inside trio and rush the outside. This isn't the dominant linebacker group from last year, and they'll be without Ahmad Brooks too after the tragic death of his sister earlier this week. Opposite Aaron Lynch, it will likely be either Corey Lemonier or the rookie, Eli Harold.
In terms of running game, I'm less worried. The Giants will likely stay with their base 3-WR set in order to draw the Niners' nickel package, which often substitutes a down lineman rather than linebacker, though it's possible that they change this approach in light of Brooks' absence.
The key battles here come at the edge. Lynch vs. Flowers and Lemonier / Harold vs. Newhouse. In all facets of the game, these are the areas where the Giants need to find success.
Victor Cruz is still out. We know that. We know it sucks. If he was in the slot with Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle on the outside, this offense could have all kinds of success against this secondary, though I suspect Dwayne Harris will do just fine this week. Between Kenneth Acker, Tramaine Brock and safety-linebacker hybrid Jimmie Ward covering the slot, there's no way they hold up reliably on every play. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea should provide decent help over the top, but the Giants only need one guy to get open on any play. I like their odds.
Elsewhere, I think the skill positions might not have so much success. Larry Donnell may struggle. The 49ers safeties are good, and their nickel package is a three-safety set so this may not be a game of goal-line fades. Even if he draws a linebacker in coverage, it may not go in his favor. Kyle Rudolph was the most successful tight end against the 49ers this season, and even he only had 53 yards. Donnell's best game in 2015 was last week when he had 38 yards.
Then there are the running backs. The Giants seem to have embraced Shane Vereen as a pass-catching gadget back, and use Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams as the traditional rushers. They're still waiting on a breakout ground game to emerge, but I don't think this is the week so it'll probably be more of the same plodding and bashing from Jennings and Williams, with the hopes of matching Vereen against an inexperienced player like Harold in coverage.
On paper, the Giants have the personnel and playing style to exploit this team. Manning hasn't had a multi-interception game since the last time he played the 49ers, and he appears to have settled into the offense in Year 2 of McAdoo's play calling. There is the slight issue of time management, but that will eventually get ironed out.
I really desperately wish Cruz was playing, because he's exactly the kind of X-factor that would push this offense to the next level. For now, they'll have to operate as standard and make the most of what they have. We haven't seen a big game from Beckham in a while. Could this be Donnell's annual blockbuster? Maybe New York gets something going in the run game. The offense needs something, someone to step up. We'll have to wait and see if anyone is up to the task.