|Can Smith and Harbaugh work some more magic Sunday? (Getty Images)|
These teams gave us a very good game back in Week 10 from which we came away truly believing for the first time that San Francisco’s old school style might actually still work in today’s pass-happy NFL. However, not much can be drawn on from that game, as the Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw, hadn’t yet gelled on the O-line and were still trying to figure things out in their defensive back seven.
New York is healthy now and, as you’ve undoubtedly heard a thousand times, “playing with confidence”. Confidence does not breed success, it stems from success. Simply put, the Giants are a much better football team this time around.
1. Tougher task for Alex Smith
Alex Smith’s fourth quarter heroics last week might have been career-changing, at least pertaining to his public image. But lost in the excitement was the fact that Smith and his teammates struggled somewhat to identify blitzes throughout most of the contest.
And, until the final few minutes, Smith wasn’t comfortable against heavy coverage in the red zone. He caught fire once he started recognizing the one-on-one matchups for Vernon Davis BEFORE the snap (which wasn’t hard against the Saints’ Cover 0’s). Thus, after the snap, he didn’t have to worry about making the right decision – he just had to worry about throwing a good ball. (To his credit, he did this extremely well.)
This week, Smith will have to worry about both. Given the mediocrity of San Francisco’s offensive tackles, the Giants’ four-man rush should be able to get pressure and force the Niners to keep backs and tight ends in to block (or at least chip). When the Giants do blitz, it’s usually a zone pass-rushing concept involving a linebacker (see Michael Boley’s two sacks at Green Bay).
Thus, all game Smith will be throwing into a more crowded secondary and without quickly defined reads. Unless Joe Staley and Anthony Davis play the game of their lives, Smith will also be throwing under some duress. Post-snap decision-making from a crowded pocket has always been Smith’s greatest weakness.
As he’s done all season, Jim Harbaugh will ameliorate Smith’s deficiencies by giving him simplified quick throws off three-step drops, utilizing play-action and, perhaps, calling throws on first down (where the coverages tend to be more basic). The Niners did this with great success in Week 10. In fact, they did it was great success throughout the season; Smith’s passer rating on first down was 101.6.
But at some point, just like last week, Smith is going to have to make a big-time throw in an obvious passing situation.
After dominating the Green Bay Packers last week, the New York Giants will travel to Candlestick Park to square off against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. Join NFL.com's Pat Kirwan and Jason Horowitz as they break down this matchup.
2. Smith’s targets
Smith isn’t the only passing game contributor who faces a tougher challenge this week. Michael Crabtree will likely be shadowed by Corey Webster, an outstanding all-around cover corner. Because Crabtree isn’t fast enough to run away from most corners, he has to beat them with body control and agility. Often, his best routes drag over the middle. When his routes go inside, it’s easy for the Giants to give Webster help (not that he needs much).
Smith’s top target, Vernon Davis, won’t be facing Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins in man coverage. Instead, he’ll go against Antrel Rolle, a more athletic cover artist whom the Arizona Cardinals originally drafted in the first round as a cornerback (the Saints drafted Jenkins as a corner, as well, but after a year they admitted what had been apparent from Day One: the stiff-hipped ex-Buckeye was better suited for safety).
And unlike last week, Davis won’t have just one defender to beat, as it’s highly unlikely the Giants will play only man and have Rolle constantly defend the 250-pound tight end one-on-one.
3. Gotta make it Gorey
Expect the run-first Niners to go back to the ground this week. Frank Gore got just 13 carries against New Orleans; he needs at least 22 against New York. If Gore can pound the rock against Perry Fewell’s big nickel defense (two linebackers, two safeties and Rolle playing a utility role as a third safety/linebacker/slot corner), the Giants may decide to go back to their base 4-3.
That would make for a less athletic front seven and present a greater possibility for Davis to draw matchups against linebackers.
Let’s keep it simple and also remember that, regardless of what the defense is doing, running is San Francisco’s bread and butter. They’re built around the power run, with booming and mobile left guard Mike Iupati pulling to the right of Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin and working in unison with lead-blockers Bruce Miller and Justin Peelle (or Delanie Walker if he can get healthy).
That’s the formula that got this team here. And it happens to be the formula that can keep New York’s white hot quarterback off the field.
4. Giants passing game
New York’s rushing attack is nowhere near as dreadful as it was in September, October and November, but against the league’s stingiest run defense, it still can’t be counted on. The Giants will have to ride the golden right arm of Eli Manning. He isn’t facing a porous pass defense like he did a week ago. San Francisco has three corners who can stay with New York’s frighteningly athletic wide receivers.
In the last meeting, Carlos Rogers was sensational defending the slot, making a handful of great jumps on the ball and finishing with two interceptions. Rogers is good enough to handle Victor Cruz.
What really stood out in the first divisional round game was how well the Niner defensive backs – particularly safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner – tackled. Considering the DB’s penchant for forcing fumbles, the Giants may be hesitant to put Hakeem Nicks and Cruz in the catch-and-run situations that they enjoy.
5. San Fran’s defensive line
The 49ers were able to break down the Giants’ pass protection in the last meeting, but again, this Giants line has improved immensely since then.
Still, Aldon Smith, with his explosive first step and startlingly quick hands, is a nightmare matchup for David Diehl on the left side, while Kareem McKenzie will need a little help against the speed of Ahmad Brooks on the right. Then there’s Justin Smith, who makes four or five fantastic penetrative plays a game.
In addition to rushing the passer, the Niners’ front three/four is fast and athletic enough to hunt down screen passes outside the numbers. That’s assuming Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman don’t hunt them down first.
Against this dynamic front seven, the Giants won’t be able to count heavily on Ahmad Bradshaw or ancillary options like Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum. Manning and his wide receivers will have to find ways to make big plays.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games.
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