Exploiting defensive holes key for Giants, 49ers
The Giants' late-season defensive rise from the depths of the ratings to downright fearful has been surprising. The 49ers' defensive proficiency has been there all season.
When these teams meet at NFC's spot in the Super Bowl, it could well be the defenses that determine the Sunday's outcome (6:30 p.m. on FOX). For the second-seeded Niners, takeaways - their fourth-ranked overall defense led the league in them with 38 - could lead them to the promised land. The Giants' pass rush, with a rejuvenated Osi Umenyiora back in form for the NFL's fourth-best sack attack (48), could hinder Smith enough to allow Eli Manning to work his magic with little pressure of an Alex Smith-led comeback.
Victory or defeat will hinge on which team can best exploit the few weaknesses of each defensive unit. Here's a short breakdown:
The Giants' front must handle Aldon Smith, the league's fifth-leading sacker with 14 in the regular season, plus a big one Saturday against Drew Brees. Fellow D-lineman Justin Smith gave some oomph up front with 71/2 during the season another one last week. But for pure ferocity, the Giants have arguably the best pass rush right now, with strip-sacking Umenyiora and the phenomenal Jason Pierre-Paul lining up simultaneously. Justin Tuck and Chris Canty provide a middle push. But when the Giants haven't surrounded their target successfully this season, they've been susceptible to big scramble. Aaron Rodgers hit them for a team-high 66 yards on seven dashes Sunday. And don't forget what the fleet-footed Smith can do at
the tail end of games when left unattended (see last week against New Orleans).
The Niners had the top run defense in the league, allowing 77.2 yards per game and just three rushing touchdowns. That trend hasn't stopped thanks to the speed of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who combined for 18 tackles in holding New Orleans to 37 rushingyards. If anything, bulky Brandon Jacobs could give them problems with sheer power, as long as offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride stops running Jacobs wide and turns him north south.
The ground game remains a problem for the Giants'19th ranked group as they gave up 147 yards to the Packers. But they held strong in the Red Zone and have allowed just one rushing touchdown in the last four games. That could easily change against the physical Frank Gore, who only fumbled twice in the regular season.
The Niners are ball hawks with a healthy 23 interceptions, a dozen of which were split between cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson (he picked off Drew Brees last week). A lot of San Francisco's success was due to the pass rush; the secondary will be vulnerable to Eli Manning torpedoes if pressure doesn't come.
Corey Webster led the Giants with six interceptions during a horrendous overall season for the secondary. Covering tight end Vernon Davis (two TDs against the Saints) with either Antrel Rolle or Michael Boley will be an issue to watch for; the Giants have had endless problems covering the biggest receivers.