Friday, November 11, 2011

A look ahead to the 49ers

The stretch of five very tough games on the Giants schedule from week 9 through week 13 consists of: Patriots, 49ers (road), Eagles (home), Packers (home) and Saints on the road. After that, the Giants last 4 games have 3 divisional games, with the Redskins at home, the Cowboys twice, in addition to the Jets.

In this current 5 game stretch, everyone was predicting gloom for the Giants and a fall from the grace of an early season soft schedule. Giants did not play well in winning some of those early games, which correctly contributed to the assessment that they were really a mediocre team propped up by the strength of those weak first half opponents. This fall from grace may yet happen - we don't really know how good the Giants are yet. However, of these five games, all the experts thought that the Patriots in New England was as close to an unwinnable game for the Giants as possible. Now the Giants have won that game and go on the road to San Francisco. In retrospect, the Giants did just enough on defense to hold the Patriots in check and did just enough on offense against a weak Patriots defense to win the game. Patriots may not be the powerhouse team that everyone assumes them to be and the win may not be as sparkling as it appeared.

The 49ers, at least on paper, present an interesting and perhaps more difficult challenge. While the Patriots have a much more potent offensive team, they have a weak defense and I thought the Giants would be able to score against them. The 49ers have a very good defensive team. They are first in the NFL against the run in terms of total yards allowed, yards per attempt and a number of other metrics. Giants have not been running the ball well against anybody this year, so it doesn't figure to get any better against the 49ers. Up in Foxboro,  the Giants could go into the game knowing that they could rely on their passing game against the poor Patriots pass defense. The thing that could be tough for the Giants this week, however is that the 49ers pass defense is not bad either. At least statistically they are almost as good as the Giants. The web site has team defensive statistics and I decided to download these team stats and calculated each teams QB-rating-against statistic. In other words, like the on-base-percentage-against is a measure for pitchers in baseball, the QB-rating-against tells you what the QB rating of opposing QBs is against the defense. Interestingly, the Giants and 49ers are ranked right behind each other, with Giants 5th in the league with a QBRA of 82.7 and the 49ers are 6th in the league with a QBRA of 84.0. To show that the statistic has some validity, the Jets, with their all-world corner Darrelle Revis and their excellent coverage secondary are best in the league with this QBRA at 63.

Based on this, the 49ers don't have an apparent weakness in the secondary that the Giants could exploit. Nevertheless, I think it would benefit the Giants to get into a high scoring shootout with the 49ers, because the Giants have more and better offensive weapons at the receiver position and, more important, they certainly have a more talented QB. If ever there was a week where the Giants should throw first and use success in the passing game to set up the run, this is it. Scoring early and taking a lead will be very useful against the 49ers. Giants have to stop the run and force the 49ers to pass, something, it should be noted, that no team has been successful doing this year.

If it comes down to a  passing / QB duel, I like the Giants chances. Giants should do everything they can in their game plan to make it that way. 49ers have great runner in Gore and running game to make their offense go. Giants have to stop that and make them pass. Easier said than done: Giants have not stopped run well this year. They started to show some signs last week, let's see if it continues. I see Kiwanuka getting a lot of playing time this week at LB instead of the lighter Jacquian Williams to counter the 49er running game. I would also use Osi less than usual for the same reason - because of his so-so performance against the run.

On the offensive side of the ball for the Giants, they have to handle a 49ers defense that plays a 3-4 with 2 very good inside LBs. To counter that, Giants should use a lot of 3-WR looks and throw to take the 49ers defense out of their base comfort zone. Then, if they run, they should try to go between the tackles rather than outside, because it can be hard to run outside against that 3-4 defense.

Speaking of statistics, if you want to analyze how good a team's pass rush is and how well they get after the QB, the simple approach is to look at the number of team sacks. However, this statistic can be misleading because a team that has a great offense and is often ahead in the game, forces the opposing offense to pass more often, and in fact to pass deep, which can lead to more sacks. The statistic should at least be normalized to the number of pass attempts by the opposing offense. Giants are leading the league in total sacks with 28 and the 49ers are not far behind, 11th in the league with 22 total sacks. However, the 49ers have a good run defense and have been leading in most of their games, forcing the opponent to pass more often. If you divide sacks by total attempts, you will find that the 49ers have a .068 sacks-per-attempt rating, which is 17th, the lower half of the league. The Giants, on the other hand lead the league in total sacks and are essentially tied for first in the league (with Redskins and Ravens) at .098 sacks-per-attempt. In plain English, that essentially means that every Giants opponent's pass attempt has a 10% chance of ending in a sack. 49ers are nearly 1/3 less likely to get to the QB. This only adds to the logic of getting into a passing duel with the 49ers.

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