It doesn't generally take a lot to annoy San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh -- the man is a great football mind, but one suspects that he'd wake up grumpy about a failed third-down conversion that happened five years ago if he was vacationing in the Bahamas. So, when New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made some fairly controversial (if passive-aggressive) comments about Justin Smith, the 49ers' dominant defensive lineman, Harbaugh's response was fairly predictable.
First, Gilbride's comments. On Thursday, when asked about Sunday's game with the 49ers -- a long awaited rematch of the 2011 NFL championship game -- Gilbride had this to say about San Francisco's top-ranked defense:
"They have great players. They're tremendous, they're tough. They have great speed on the outside, (Justin) Smith is a beast on the inside, he's strong, he does as good a job of grabbing a hold of offensive linemen and allowing those twists to take place. He never gets called for it, so he gets away with murder. That, in conjunction with the ability level they have, makes them as formidable as anybody we go against, and we go against some pretty good ones in Dallas' and Philadelphia's. They're as good as anybody up front."
Way to sneak that shot in there, coach -- "They're marvelous, except for all the times when they're cheating."
Harbaugh's statement about Gilbride's comments, which was released to the media before his team practiced on Friday, didn't pull as many punches. None, in fact.
"Kevin Gilbride's outrageous, irrational statement regarding Justin Smith's play is, first, an absurd analogy.
"Second, it is an incendiary comment targeting one of the truly exemplary players in this league. It's obvious that the Giants coaching staff's sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating."
Gilbride's weird insertion of that particular point has me thinking that Harbaugh is right in this case. This is a pretty clear example of the Giants going out of their way to make the league aware of something that actually happens on a fairly consistent basis among teams that run their defensive fronts similarly to San Francisco's.
The 49ers frequently assign Smith to take more than one -- and sometimes as many as three -- blockers from a defensive tackle position so that end Aldon Smith can loop inside and sack the quarterback. The Packers do this with Clay Matthews, who generally gets more sacks stunting inside than he does turning an offensive tackle out from the outside, and the Seattle Seahawks have used ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin in similar roles. In stunts and loops like this, it's true that defensive tackles can get away with holding, because there's too much going on from the linebacker level in for the back judges to catch every little thing. It's not uncommon, and hardly unique to Justin Smith.
Moreover, Gilbride's a smart guy. He knows that people won't pay attention to his praise for Smith -- he gave the media a pure pull quote, and now that's the focus. That's a disservice to Smith, who may be the strongest player in the game, and frequently dominates the offensive lines he faces without the aid of illegal tactics.
As if the 49ers didn't already have enough skin in this game! Avenging the overtime loss that kept them from the Super Bowl last season was a good enough reason to get amped up for this one, but Gilbride's comments could wind up backfiring.
And we'd like to send a short message to the Giants' offensive linemen playing across from Justin Smith this Sunday: Good luck. You're going to need it.
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