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Taking a closer look at the offensive lines for the 49ers and Giants in their rematch of the NFC Championship Game.
The New York Giants come into Candlestick tomorrow in a rematch of last season NFC Championship Game, which the 49ers lost 20-17 in overtime, following a pair of Kyle Williams miscues while returning punts. Everyone remembers the game and it conjures up some bad memories for the 49ers' faithful. We want revenge, while the Giants simply want to leave San Francisco above .500. It's 2012, a different year, and the 49ers offense has been remade to startling effect, if the last two games are anything to judge by. The Giants, however, are following last year's pattern of up-and-down play and come in to the game at 3-2. A look at their record reveals that they've beaten three teams with a combined 2-12 record. The two teams they've lost to, the Eagles and Cowboys, were expected to be playoff contenders before the season but have fallen into the same groove as the Giants, with sporadic bursts of brilliant play mixed in amongst a lot of mediocrity and the occasional game-losing meltdown. The NFC East, as a whole, is the division that no team wants to take control of. The Giants are dangerous, though. They've shown last year, and in 2007, that if given the opportunity, they can and will beat anyone, and can win a title if they get hot. Basically, they have what the 49ers want.
In examining the game there are so many intriguing matchups and subplots involved that there's not enough virtual ink to cover them all. Alex Smith's continued resurgence, to the point where he is now leading the league in passer rating and is garnering attention as an MVP candidate, vs Eli 'the magician' Manning, as he was referred to by Jim Harbaugh earlier in the week. You have two players from last year's Super Bowl winning Giants who've jumped ship to the 49ers. One of them, in Mario Manningham, is getting more and more touches as the weeks progress and is looking like a threat on every play, while the other, Brandon Jacobs, injured his knee in the preseason, has yet to take the field, despite claiming to be at full strength, and has expressed his concern about his lack of playing time recently. Then you have two of the most feared defensive lines in the league taking field. The Giants are known for pressuring the quarterback, yet are ranked 25th in the NFL in sacks with 8 on the year, one less than the 49ers. Both Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora have been underwhelming so far, combining for 3.5 sacks through the first 5 games of the year. The 49ers defensive line is known as much for it's run-stopping ability as it's pass rush. It should be noted that outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks provide a large portion of the 49ers pressures and sacks and Smith was a part of the D-line last season. The 49ers come into the game ranked 7th in the league in rushing yards allowed, but much of that falls on the shoulders of their standout inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, both playing at All-Pro level to start the season. The Giants, by contrast, are ranked 16th against the run and 22nd overall in yards allowed.
The wild card, then, for both teams, looks to be their offensive lines. Both lines came into the season ranked in the middle of the pack by most observers, with the Giants having the slight edge over the 49ers, if you were to find some sort of an aggregate. Both units, however, come into Sunday's game ranked among the best in the league. The 49ers offense is leading the league in rushing at 196 yards per game. It's not just Frank Gore and some bulldozers, as it would have been during the Mike Singletary years. Kendall Hunter has 201 yards, Mario Manningham and the receivers are getting end-arounds, and Colin Kaepernick has been picked up some key yards and first downs, specifically in the Jets game. Some of this is game planning and play calling (Greg Roman should be up for a coordinator of the year award), some of it is talent at the skill positions, and a lot of it is the offensive line. The line also leads the league in adjusted line yards, a stat I can barely understand, let alone explain, which comes to us from the good folks at Football Outsiders. Not only are we ranked No. 1 at runs in between the tackles, we're No. 2 at runs around the left end and No. 5 around the right end. Basically, the 49ers can run wherever they want, whenever they want, with whoever they choose carrying the ball. They're averaging 6.1 yards per carry, with the next closest team, the Kansas City Chiefs, coming in nearly a full yard behind them. It's an astonishing number. Mike Iupati was drafted to plow over people and he's lived up to that from day one. The big surprise has been Alex Boone at right guard. At the start of the season many 49ers fans were worried about the position, having lamented the team's failure to draft any of the top interior linemen, nor chase any free agents with much effort. The inactivity has paid off, with Boone being a major upgrade over last year's starter, Adam Snyder, who was allowed to leave via free agency to the Arizona Cardinals and is now part of what is widely considered the worst line in the league.
The Giants offensive line has consistently protected the passer well. Last season they ranked 7th in fewest sacks, and this, for one of the most pass-happy teams in the league. This year they rank number one in pass protection according to Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, having given up the second fewest sacks in the league. That's no surprise. Protecting Eli Manning and giving the superstar quarterback enough time to find any number of dangerous downfield receivers is one of the team's strong suits. What's surprising is that they come into the game ranked 4th in the above mentioned adjusted line yards and come in to the game on the heels of a performance against the Cleveland Browns in which they rushed for 243 yards and allowed only two quarterback pressures. They are averaging 4.8 yards per carry, good for 6th in the league, and have done so with leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw missing most of two games due to injury. Bradshaw rushed for 200 yards last week after fumbling on the games opening play.
The Giants dominated the Browns with their offensive line play. But, alas, the Browns front seven is not the 49ers front seven. The 49ers have one of the best fronts in recent memory and are not going to be pushed around by the Giants O-line. You can expect the Giants to continue to protect Eli Manning well and allow him the time to test us, and I can even see us getting beat for a few big plays in this one, but the Giants aren't going to run the ball on us. Our steamrollers, on the other hand, are going to have their way with the Giants defense and we should be able to continue our symmetrical offensive performance, though we're not matching last weeks 311 yards on the ground, 310 yards in the air. 180+ through both ground and air seems like more par for the course and it should be enough to carry us to victory. The Giants will be one-dimensional, we'll be multi-faceted and a fatigued New York squad will leave it all on the field, yet walk away with their third loss in as many tries against playoff-caliber foes. Everyone remembers the NFC Championship Game, but this will play out like the earlier matchup from last season, the week 10 matchup that saw the 49ers win 27-20.