For the third week in a row, the Giants face a shell-shocked opponent whose dreams of playoff contention have been shattered early. At the start of training camp, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan said "it will be a disappointment to me if we don't make the playoffs." They seemed on track after a promising 2–0 start, but injuries have left his offense impotent. San Francisco has scored just two touchdowns in their last three games, and last week lost to the Ravens despite holding them to just nine points. The Giants look to continue their resurgence with a fifth straight win before heading off for their game in London.
49ERS (2-3) at GIANTS (4-2)
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL The Niners spent $40 million in free agency on four new defensive starters. The result has been an immediate improvement. Last year, San Francisco gave up more points than any other NFL team. This year, they've held three of their first five opponents to 17 points or less, and they rank 10th in yards allowed.
The addition of cornerback Nate Clements has been one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround. He's outstanding in man coverage — playing aggressive and physical at the line and using his speed to keep receivers from getting open downfield. Strong safety Michael Lewis, another free agent addition, is a big hitter who makes plays against both the pass and the run. Veteran cornerback Walt Harris, a pro bowler last year, and safety Mark Roman have raised their games up a notch because they have more help around them.
The key to the Niners 3–4 scheme is tackle Aubrayo Franklin. He's an ideal two-gap run stuffer, and his ability to control the center of the line frees up the linebackers to make plays. Rookie Patrick Willis's toughness and speed have helped him earn a starting job at inside linebacker. Because the Niners secondary is playing so well, the Giants will have to rely on their ground game on Sunday. Fortunately for them, they have a trio of backs who have all been productive. The Giants have had 188 rushing yards in each of the past two games, with Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Reuben Droughns each scoring at least on touchdown.
Eli Manning continues to make poor throws at times, resulting in six interceptions over the last four games. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride would be well advised to avoid challenging San Francisco's secondary and creating situations where turnovers are likely.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL Quarterback Alex Smith has been sidelined for two weeks with a separated shoulder, leaving veteran Trent Dilfer at the helm. The 35-year old looked rusty when he relieved Smith in the Seattle game and didn't look much better in a start against the Ravens.
Either way, the Niners main focus isn't going to be their passing game. It will be running back Frank Gore, who set a franchise record with 1,695 rushing yards last year. Gore is an overpowering inside runner and an outstanding receiver. Unfortunately, as the passing game has struggled, opposing defenses have been able to stack the line of scrimmage and contain him. He's averaged just more than 60 yards per game, and if you throw out a 43-yard touchdown run he made in St. Louis, Gore has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry this season.
The Giants' run defense hasn't been challenged much this year. Four of their six opponents didn't really try to establish a ground game. The most yards they've given up to an opposing back was 87 by Jerious Norwood last week, but 67 of those yards came on a broken play early in the game. Otherwise, the Giants' defense has been able to stop teams from running the ball, and there's no reason to expect that they can't shut Frank Gore down in San Francisco's one-dimensional offense.
If the Niners do try to open things up with the passing game, they'll have to do it against a defense that leads the league in sacks. One thing that could help is the return of tight end Vernon Davis, sidelined since week three with a partially torn MCL in his right knee.
KEY TO THE GAME There are only two ways that the Niners can hurt the Giants. One is with their running game, which the Giants seem more than capable of preventing. The other is with their secondary, and that's a trap they have to avoid. Manning has to avoid the bad throws and risky decisions that lead to interceptions, and if he does that his team should cruise to victory.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 27–10