What can you learn from a first game in the same season as we ready for a playoff rematch?
That's what I tried to figure out in studying the Giants-49ers game from Week 10, a game won 27-20 by San Francisco. That was two months ago, but it's still relevant as we ready for the NFC Championship Game.
The past is sometimes a hint of the future. After watching that tape, I thought the Giants were the better team -- and might be even better than that now. The Giants outgained the 49ers 395-305 yards and had 21 first downs to 16.
New York fell behind 27-13 in the fourth quarter, but had a chance to tie the game late before some bad play calling blew that opportunity. The Giants had a second-and-2 at the 49ers' 10 with 1:24 left. But they tried to hit a touchdown to Mario Manningham in the end zone, going for the score, and the pass was incomplete. They probably should have settled for a first down before trying to score.
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On third down, they ran inside and it was stuffed for a 1-yard gain. On fourth down, Justin Smith knocked down Eli Manning's pass. It appeared Victor Cruz was open on the play for what would have been a first down --and maybe a touchdown.
If the Giants play the way they did that day, they will win this week.
Here are some of the highlights I saw from the tape after watching that game:
• Both teams did a good job in run defense. The 49ers ran 20 times for 77 yards, but 27 came on scrambles by Alex Smith. The Giants had 93 yards on 29 carries. Both teams were hurt by injuries in the backfield. The Giants played without Ahmad Bradshaw, while Frank Gore of the 49ers left with an injury after six carries for zero yards. The only big run the 49ers got was a 17-yard touchdown run by Kendall Hunter. On that play, the 49ers sealed the left side and the Giants missed their run fits and it was an easy score. The Giants' longest run was a 15-yarder by Brandon Jacobs. But that was pretty much it for their run game. I would expect both teams to try and change that this week. The offensive lines have to get more push if that is to be a reality.
• The pass protection by both teams was pretty solid. The Giants had two sacks of Smith, while Manning was dropped only once, that coming on an insider blitz by Patrick Willis. The Giants blitzed more in this game, but with the way their pass rush is playing now, I would imagine that could change this week.
• Eli Manning hit 10 consecutive passes in the first half and pretty much had the time to survey the field all day. He completed 26 of 40 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns. His two scoring throws were perfect tosses to Hakeem Nicks and Manningham -- the one to Manningham was as pretty a throw as you will ever see in the back of the end zone. Manning made one awful throw that was picked off by Carlos Rogers, which set up Hunter's touchdown. But it was evident Manning expected the receiver to keep running across the field and he stopped, which made it an easy play for Rogers.
• The 49ers got their big play on a touchdown pass from Smith to tight end Vernon Davis. He lined up on the right side and ran a crossing route against a zone. The Giants linebackers vacated the zone to run with Delanie Walker, who was running a route in the middle of the field from the left side of the formation. That opened things up for Davis, who easily took the pass and raced down the left sideline for the score. This was a vintage 49ers play, with the crossing route coming after the zone was vacated. They do it against man, also, when they pick off the defenders with the crossing receivers.
To sum it up, it was a tossup game but the better team didn't win that day. We'll see how things change this week. I think one thing that changes will be the pass rush for both teams. They're too good up front for that not to happen.
Film study (Things I saw from watching the tape)
1. The Ravens have issues making throws down the field. The Texans put corner Johnathan Joseph on Torrey Smith, the Ravens' deep threat, and he took him out of the game. He did a great job in man coverage and seemed to frustrate Smith, who has great speed. But the Ravens can't allow that to happen. Even when Smith is being covered, they have to take shots this week against the Patriots down the field to help open things up underneath and back the Patriots off the line. The Patriots have had some struggles on the corner, and Smith has to challenge them down the field. Anquan Boldin is pretty much a possession receiver, so it's on Smith to make plays when matched up in man coverage -- something he didn't do last week.
2. There are some interesting things to watch for when the 49ers run the ball: They will go to an unbalanced line at times, flopping left tackle Joe Staley to the right side outside of right tackle Anthony Davis. When they've done that, they've actually run back to the weak side, away from the power. They also have thrown off that formation this season. And if you want to get an idea where they are going in terms of the run game, study the guards. The 49ers love to pull their guards. They block down with the other linemen and then get the guards moving into the hole to lead their runners. Left guard Mike Iupati is really good on the move. Right guard Adam Snyder isn't as good. That will put pressure on the Giants defensive tackles to get penetration to keep the guards from getting up the field. That's how defenses have stuffed the San Francisco running game at times. The Giants did a good job of it in the first game. The 49ers will also get the action going one way -- a guard pulling that way -- and then try and throw back to the other side. I saw them try and throw a screen back to the left with the action to the right several times this season. That's something the Giants defenders have to be aware of in terms of staying home.
3. There are a couple of things to watch when the Giants have the ball. The 49ers had trouble in zone coverage with short passes to the outside in some of the tapes I watched. That could mean Victor Cruz on a short out route with a receiver running a slant inside of him. The Cardinals got a big play to Andre Roberts that way in their first game against the 49ers. Cruz, you might remember, took a short out route and turned it into a 99-yard touchdown for the Giants against the Jets on Christmas Eve. The other hole in the 49ers defense is over the top of the linebackers, who have a tendency to really widen out, and in front of the safeties, who aren't great in coverage. That means there should be some opportunities for Nicks in the middle of the field. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are good tacklers for the 49ers, and excel in the run game, but coverage isn't the strong point for either -- although both have improved on it this season. Goldson especially looks quicker to the ball and looks lighter.
4. The last time the Ravens played a playoff game against the Patriots, Ray Rice ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns, including an 83-yard run on the game's first play. On that play, center Matt Birk got a great block on nose tackle Vince Wilfork, sealing him to the left as Rice ran right off that block on the right side. Wilfork got dominated on the play. The interesting thing about that is Birk is no longer as powerful at the point of attack as he was then. That could cause problems for the Ravens if they are to try and run inside against Wilfork and fellow tackle Kyle Love, another wide body inside. There were times this season where Birk had problems with big, powerful tackles inside. He's still smart and knows the tricks of the trade, but he isn't close to being a strong, dominant run center.
5. Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is his team's best pass rusher. He had 14 sacks on the season and must come up big against Tom Brady this week. He has to get him off his spot. But Suggs was a non-factor last week as a pass rusher against the Texans. Why? The Texans tackles are good players who did a good job on him. They also held him without a sack when the teams met in the regular season. There's some talk that Suggs feasts on bad tackles to get his sacks and struggles against good ones. He had nine of his sacks in three games this season. He had three against Jon Scott, a Steelers tackle who opened the season as the starter but is little more than a journeyman. He had three against the Colts duo of rookie Anthony Castanzo and Jeff Linkenbach. And he had three against 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis, who isn't exactly known as a great pass protector. New England's tackles are coming off an impressive game against Denver's pass rushers. Left tackle Matt Light and rookie right tackle Nate Solder held Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil to two tackles and one quarterback hit between them. The Ravens love to flop Suggs from side to side, but he will face a stiff test on either side. Light is the veteran of a lot of big postseason moments, and Solder is a massive player who has the look of a future star -- probably on the left side when Light is done. Solder opened the season with an impressive game against Miami's Cameron Wake and is playing at that level again after taking over for the injured Sebastian Vollmer. Suggs will have a real challenge going against the two Patriots tackles, especially with the way Brady gets the ball out so quickly.
Three and outs
Top three pass rushers left playing
1. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul
3. 49ers outside linebacker/end Aldon Smith
Ranking the best pass-catching threats left playing
1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski
2. Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks
3. Patriots receiver Wes Welker
Three key non-coordinator assistants on the four teams still playing
1. Patriots line coach Dante Scarnecchia
2. 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula
3. Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin
Three non-stars who could come up big this week
1. Patriots defensive tackle Kyle Love
2. Ravens corner Cary Williams
3. 49ers receiver Kyle Williams
My three cents
1. Please don't call the Giants a defensive team. They were 25th in scoring defense.
2. If the Giants win, I bet we hear the talk that Eli is better than Peyton Manning. Don't go there.
3. Every time I hear you need to run to win, I look at the teams left playing. The best rushing team was the 49ers at No. 8 in the final league rankings. The Giants were last. Myth, folks -- myth.
Tweets at me
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