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Giants vs. 49ers: Five things to watch Sunday night

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants look to get above the.500 mark, and with a little help from the New England Patriots perhaps

Can the Giants handle prosperity?

The Giants being the heavy favorite, being expected to win, being expected to do anything, is always enough to make Giants' fans queasy. It's been that way since the days of Bill Parcells. The Giants seem to do well when there aren't any expectations and I think even the fan base has come to like it that way.

This week, it's not that way. The Giants have won two straight games. They are at home against a reeling 1-3 team that has been outscored, 107-28, in its last three games. They are expected to win. Shoot, they are 7-point favorites and expected to dominate. A little bit like the Buffalo Bills were expected to dominate the Giants a week ago.

Tom Coughlin's Giants teams -- at least the good ones -- have followed this franchise trend of handling crisis better than prosperity. So, go ahead and be nervous about Sunday night, Giants fans. History indicates you probably should be.

Who is playing defense for the Giants?

Some people think of the Giants as a "no-name" defense. This Sunday, they could be right. The Giants' best pass rusher, defensive end Robert Ayers, could miss his third straight game with a hamstring injury. Their best linebacker, Devon Kennard, could also be sidelined with a hamstring issue. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas (calf) and defensive end George Selvie (calf) could also be out of action.

Who the heck is left? More importantly, how the heck are the Giants going to rush the passer without Ayers and Kennard, or cover the middle of the field vs. the pass if Kennard and Casillas can't play?

Even with a full complement of players, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been challenged to mix and match to get the right combinations of players on the field in the right situations. That could be even trickier on Sunday night.

Don't let Kaepernick up off the mat

Yeah, Kaepernick has been awful this season. He has two touchdown passes, five interceptions, a passer rating of just 67.7 and a QBR of 38.57. Those numbers, incidentally, make him an unsightly 33rd in passer rating. The Niners are last in passign yards. They are last in points. So, what could go wrong for the Giants?

Kaepernick was perhaps never going to be the great quarterback some (cough, cough, Ron Jaworski) predicted, but he can't be this bad. Can he? Is he really the worst passer in the league? Even Kurt Warner isn't really sure what Kapernick is these days. Let's hope the Giants don't allow Kaepernick to re-discover that at times he's been a really good player in the NFL. He's down, keep him that way.

It will help if the Giants, ranked first in the league in run defense through four games, can shut down 49ers running back Carlos Hyde. The second-year back is is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and is ninth in the league in ushing yards with 282.

It will also help, of course, if the Giants can take advantage of what has thus far been a porous San Francisco offensive line. In his look at "When the 49ers have the ball," Chris correctly wrote this:

The Giants defensive line goes up against a San Francisco offensive line that has struggled mightily since a terrific performance on opening weekend. Left tackle Joe Staley has been solid, but he is the only one. From center to right tackle, the Niners' line has given up a combined 27 hurries, hits, and sacks. All told, Colin Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times through the first four games. That pressure has been a big part of why the Niners have the last ranked passing offense in the league.

The Giants will miss having a dynamic defensive end, like JPP or Robert Ayers, who can win one-on-one battles with left tackles like Joe Staley, but if they are going to jump start their pass rush, this could be the week to do it.

The Giants will likely be missing Ayers and linebacker Devon Kennard. Could this be the week Damontre Moore finally breaks into the sack column? Could Owamagbe Odighizuwa provide some pass rush help? Will the pressure have to come from some creative blitz packages?

The middle of the field needs defending, too

The Giants have done a good job not surrendering the back-breaking deep pass, giving up just one pass play of more than 40 yards so far this season. Where the Giants have not been good is in defending the middle of the field against the pass, especially in the direction of the tight end.

The Giants allow tight ends 83.9 yards per game receiving, more than 33 yards above league average and 31st in the NFL. They give up 62.9 yards receiving to running backs, 28th in the league. Pretty obvious that teams are attacking the Giants' linebackers and safeties in the short to intermediate areas of the field.

A better pass rush would help alleviate some of this, of course. Maybe as Landon Collins and Uani 'Unga get more experience and as Jon Beason gets healtheier this will improve. Whatever it takes, though, the Giants need to tighten up in this area.

The Eli-to-OBJ connection

Odell Beckham Jr. leads the Giants with 24 receptions, but something hasn't been quite right between Beckham and Eli Manning thus far in 2015. Let's look at the numbers, then we will talk about it more.

  • Beckham is 19th in the league in receptions, averaging 6.0 per game. In 2014, he finished ninth in just 12 games with 91, an average of 7.6 per game.
  • Beckham has been targeted 41 times and has caught 58.5 percent of the passes thrown his way. In 2014, he was targeted a total of 130 times, catching 70 percent of passes thrown to him by Manning.
  • Beckham is averaging 76.8 yards receiving per game, 20th in the league. In 2014, he averaged a league-leading 108.8 yards per game.
  • Beckham's passer rating when thrown to this year is 100.7, per Pro Football Focus, seventh in the league. In 2014, his passer rating when thrown to was 127.6, third in the league. Not a big drop until you consider this. In 2015, Manning's passer rating is 96.4, so Beckham's PR is just +4.3. In 2014, Manning's passer rating was 92.1, so throwing to Beckham he was +35.5. That's a big difference.

Clearly, something has changed. Defenses, with an entire offseason to study Beckham, have played him exceptionally well. Teams are generally playing a safety over the top of Beckham, challenging his ability to get over the top of the defense. One thing the Bufallo Bills did well is force Beckham into the boundary whenever he tried to go vertical, giving Manning no place to throw the ball except out of bounds. There have also been a few occasions where Manning has been just far enough off target that Beckham couldn't haul the ball in.

"I think, in general, we've haven't been as clean outside the numbers as we've liked to be. It's not the quarterback, it's not Odell, it's not Rueben [Randle], it's just a combination of everything, and that's something we're working at right now to get better at," said offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. "We're going to keep targeting Odell and we feel his production will come as long as he's dialed in. He's doing a nice job blocking and being physical out there and we expect the numbers to be there. What those numbers will be, I don't know, but he's going to have plenty opportunity."

The Giants' offense goes to another level when Manning and Beckham are combining for big plays. Will this week against the 49ers be when that connection finally kicks into high gear?