Leading up to the 49ers week 3 matchup, Grant Cohn of the 49ers Insider asked his readers how the Vikings could defeat the 49ers defense. My response to that question is the following:
- Stick with the run game - doing so will keep the 49ers from doing what they want, making you one dimensional. This balance is key, as it also helps to speed up the game and limit the number of possessions, making each possession that more critical.
- Be efficient passing underneath - The 49ers defense is set up to give opponents the underneath routes, hoping that you get impatient and make a mistake. If you don't they expect to be able to hold you to a field goal once you reach the Red Zone. If you stick with the run on early downs and set yourself up in situations that are 3rd and 5 or fewer you are in a good position to move the chains against the 49ers Defense.
The Vikings followed this plan to a 24-13 victory. Although they averaged only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt they stuck with it to the tune of 41 carries on the day. In the passing game, Christian Ponder was not spectacular, but extremely efficient as 15 of his 21 completions resulted in first downs and 2 others resulted in touchdowns.
As the 49ers prepare for the New York Giants this Sunday, I bring this up because I see the Giants as being a team that can pull off the same type of gameplan as the Vikings. Let's take a look at my 3 defensive keys to victory this week.
1) Disrupt Eli Manning - Eli Manning is one of the top QB's in the NFL, and makes his living by beating the defense underneath. Through the first 4 weeks of the season he had attempted 160 passes, of which 103 were thrown 10 yards or less downfield, and he completed 73.7% of those throws. As we saw firsthand in their 2 matchups last season, those underneath throws set up the deep ball.
In addition to his efficiency throwing the ball, Manning shows great mobility. No, you won't see him running around the field like Christian Ponder, but he has an almost unmatched ability to move around in the pocket and make throws all over the field. It will be a great test for the 49ers defensive front to both get pressure on him, and contain his movement. They did a very good job of this in the 2nd half of the NFC Championship game, and although they have not done much of it through the first 5 weeks will need to get back to that style this week.
2) Contain Victor Cruz and Martellus Bennett - When the Giants go to their 3 WR sets Victor Cruz will move to the slot. This will create an interesting matchup with Carlos Rogers who has struggled out of the gate. During their 2 meetings last season Cruz was targeted 28 times and came away with 16 receptions for 226 yards (14.1 avg). So far this season Cruz has been targeted 57 times, by far the most of any Giants WR and he has 37 receptions for 438 yards, and 5 touchdowns. He has also been the key to keeping Giants drives alive, as 23 of his 37 receptions have resulted in first downs.
Bennett, a free agent acquisition from Dallas in the offseason, is currently 2nd on the Giants in both receptions and targets. So far he has 19 receptions on 30 targets, for a total of 217 yards and 3 touchdowns. In their 2 matchups last season, Manning targeted his TE's 13 times and came away with 10 completions for 80 yards, and 1 touchdown, a 6 yard scoring toss to Bear Pascoe in the Championship game. The challenge of stopping Bennett will fall on the shoulders of Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.
3) Force New York to abandon the run - The Giants rushing attack is a 3 headed monster featuring Ahmad Bradshaw, Andre Brown, and David Wilson. The trio have combined for 583 yards rushing on 111 attempts for an average of 5.25 yards per carry. The 49ers might catch a break this week however with Brown's availability in question following a concussion suffered in last week's game against the Browns. The Giants have averaged 25.2 rushes per game, and it will be on the 49ers defensive front 7 to make sure they are below that number this week.