Alex Smith aired it out more than expected last time. (Getty Images)
Where: Candlestick Park
When: Sunday, January 22, 6:30 PM ET
The Week 10 matchup between the Giants and 49ers (a 27-20 San Francisco win) was more atypical than indicative when it came to the San Francisco offense. Jim Harbaugh operated one of three NFL offenses that ran more than it passed in 2011 (the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans were the others), but of the 26 plays San Francisco ran in the first half of that game, 20 were pass plays. Quarterback Alex Smith was especially effective to his tight ends overall — 9 of 11 for 109 yards and his only passing touchdown when throwing to tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Walker was Smith's primary target in that game — seven targets and six catches — and it's good news for Smith that Walker might be good to go after suffering a broken jaw late in the season. The Giants ranked 12th in the NFL in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, but it's a bit different when facing a team that relies on its tight ends as much as the 49ers do.
Watch for 49ers LOLB Ahmad Brooks to read and react to Eli Manning's right sideline passes. This stuck out right away on the Week 10 tape. Manning threw 164 passes to the right sideline, more than to any other area of the field, and his numbers weren't great — 83 completions in 164 attempts for 1,318 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions. Brooks didn't seem to read run a lot; he was more about either providing an every-down pass rush as Aldon Smith was getting up to speed or dropping back in coverage to take away the flat routes.
Brooks is not incredibly agile in space, but he's playing that LaMarr Woodley role, where there's an equal responsibility to drop and blitz. Then as now, the 49ers can get away with having their outside guys sell out, because their interior front line and inside linebackers are simply ferocious when it comes to stopping the run. Manning will throw flare and flat passes to his backs on the left side, which is an area that will be vacated frequently by the pass-rushing Aldon Smith.
We know that San Francisco defensive lineman Justin Smith is perhaps the most effective and versatile lineman in the NFL — that's how you get Pro Bowl votes at both end and tackle — but don't sleep on the efforts of nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. In the Week 10 Giants game, Sopoaga did exactly what he did in the divisional round against the Saints — penetrate the opposing offensive line like a three-tech tackle despite the fact that he usually weighs in at about 340 pounds. That's why he ranked third in the NFL among defensive tackles in FO's Stop Rate metric against the run — only Philly's Cullen Jenkins and Atlanta's Corey Peters were better.
Of course, Sopoaga's just one of the main reasons the 49ers are a pure nightmare to run against — San Francisco ranked third in FO's Defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, and no defense allowed fewer running back yards per attempt (3.46). The 49ers also ranked first in Power situations (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, 2 yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), though they were next-to-last in negative plays allowed. Makes sense, really — this defensive front is more about creating explosive stops than reading and reacting. And the Giants had no answer for that run defense in Week 10 — you take out one 15-yard run by Brandon Jacobs halfway through the third quarter, and the Giants ran 28 times for 78 yards — an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
So, that puts the pressure squarely on the shoulders of one Eli Manning to make this happen for the Giants' offense. Manning throws to perhaps the most underrated receiver corps in the NFL, and he certainly opened up a can on the defending champion Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, but he didn't do quite as well against the 49ers earlier this season — and this 49ers pass defense has been a beast all season. You have to start with the pass rush, and that will be Eli's problem, because the 49ers don't have to bring extra defenders to get pass pressure.
According to ESPN's Stats and Info, San Francisco's defense sent four or fewer pass rushers after the quarterback on 80.9 percent of opposing snaps, second-highest in the NFL, but they still finished third in the NFL with 102 quarterback hits (per Football Outsiders' metrics), and tied for seventh in quarterback sacks with 42. And if you want to go three-wide against the 49ers to contest that pass rush from a schematic perspective? Forget about it. Facing three-receiver sets, the 49ers posted 32 of their sacks. Aldon Smith got 13 of his 14 sacks in his rookie campaign against such formations.
As for the Giants' pass rush, which is also very effective when bringing four or fewer rushers, they'll want to stick with that plan. Only the Philadelphia Eagles had more sacks than the Giants' 34 in those formations (again, per ESPN), and Alex Smith actually did better against the big blitz in the regular season. Against four or fewer rushers, Smith averaged 6.8 yards per attempt, and threw seven touchdowns to four interceptions. Against five or more rushers, he averaged 7.5 YPA and threw 10 touchdowns to one pick. The 49ers' offensive line does struggle against blitzes, but Smith has clearly learned to work around that.
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