The Giants will visit Candlestick Park for the first time in six years Sunday when they meet the San Francisco 49ers in a battle of teams sporting a combined record of 13-3. A dramatic victory last week in New England was the Giants' sixth win in seven games and improved their record to 6-2. The 49ers have won six in a row and have the NFL's second-best record at 7-1. The Giants have won each of the last three meetings – in 2005, '07 and '08 – to take a 14-13 lead in the regular season series. The Niners have a one-game edge in postseason games, 4-3. The Giants are 4-6 in the regular season and 1-4 in the postseason in Candlestick.
Although the 49ers are six games over .500, they have gained fewer yards per game (325.9-311.1) and have fewer first downs than their opponents (145-140). They are ranked 26th in the NFL in offense, sixth in rushing (137.6 yards per game) and 30th in passing (173.5). San Francisco is eighth in scoring with an average of 25.8 points a game.
The 49ers are an old-fashioned offensive team. New head coach Jim Harbaugh runs a ball control offense that, as the numbers indicate, emphasizes a power running game and a low-risk passing attack that has resulted in only two interceptions. The Niners essentially say, "We're going to run the ball, see if you can stop us." Last week's 19-11 victory over Washington was the first game this season in which the Niners did not rush for a touchdown. The 49ers do a lot of pre-snap motion and shifting in an attempt to confuse the defense. Their plus-12 turnover differential is second in the league to Detroit's plus-13.
Running back Frank Gore carries the heaviest workload on the offense. He is fifth in the NFL with 782 rushing yards and has scored five touchdowns. With 7,196 career yards, Gore needs 149 yards to pass Hall of Famer Joe Perry and become the franchise's career rushing leader. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in a franchise-record five consecutive games. Gore is an outstanding back with great vision and patience. A two-time Pro Bowler, he is an exceptionally tough player who will continually pound the ball into the line. Gore has seven runs of 20 or more yards and three of 40 or more this season. He also has 13 receptions this season. The backup is rookie fourth-round draft choice Kendall Hunter, who provides a change of pace and runs hard.
Rookie Bruce Miller was a defensive end at Central Florida who had never played fullback in his life before the 49ers moved him there. He has been the starting fullback since Moran Norris broke his leg in Week 2. Miller is a tough blocker who caught a 30-yard touchdown pass last week against the Redskins. San Francisco also uses 330-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback in goal line and short-yardage situations. He had an 18-yard reception against Cleveland.
Quarterback Alex Smith struggled after he was the first overall selection of the 2005 NFL Draft, but he has flourished under Harbaugh. Smith has completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes and has thrown for 10 touchdowns – and those two picks. A good athlete, Smith has a quick release and has been exceptional at throwing slants and crosses at short and intermediate distances. He is a good runner who can extend plays and he has a nice touch on fade passes. Smith's backup is rookie Colin Kaepernick.
Leading wideout Michael Crabtree got off to a slow start because of a foot injury but has 30 catches for 314 yards and a touchdown. He was Smith's top target each of the last three weeks. Crabtree is a big-play receiver with long arms, strong hands and impressive vertical speed. Joshua Morgan started the first five games, but was lost for the season when he suffered a broken foot near the end of a 48-3 rout of Tampa Bay. Braylon Edwards missed four games with a knee injury, but he returned to the lineup to catch six passes the last two weeks. Edwards is a very good route runner and jumper with outstanding receiving skills. Ted Ginn, Jr. has rare speed and the skill to unnerve a defense anytime he comes off the line of scrimmage. He is valuable even without catching the ball by running down the field and drawing deep coverage that opens up the field for Smith's passes underneath. Kyle Williams is the fourth wide receiver.
Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are both excellent receivers. They are tied for the team lead with three touchdown catches. Davis, a 2009 Pro Bowler, tops the team with 31 receptions. He lines up all over the formation and never leaves the field. Davis has terrific speed and finds and catches the ball well. He is also a tough and competitive blocker. Walker shares many of those attributes. He is a vertical threat and tough in the red zone. Walker also has nine rushing attempts since 2008. The two tight ends frequently play together.
San Francisco's offensive line features three former first-round draft choices – left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. Staley is the best of the group, a big, smart and instinctive player with outstanding athleticism, which he demonstrated with a 17-yard reception against Cleveland. Iupati is powerful and talented and plays with an irritable attitude. Center Jonathan Goodwin joined the team as a free agent to replace David Baas, now with the Giants. He is clever player in the middle of the line. Adam Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal as the starter at right guard after three games. He has started games at both tackle spots in the past. Davis is a powerful 325-pound right tackle. Rachal is the top backup. Another reserve, Alex Boone, lines up at tight end, which helps the 49ers realize their goal of pounding the opposition with their run game.
The 49ers not only run the ball well, they are the best in the NFL at stopping the run. They've held their opponents to a league-low average of 70.8 yards a game on the ground. San Francisco is also first in points allowed (14.8 points a game) and in red zone defense (allowing only seven touchdowns in 20 opposing trips inside their 20-yard line, just 35 percent). The 49ers' defense is ranked ninth overall (325.9 yards a game) and 22nd vs. the pass (255.1).
San Francisco, which employs an opportunistic, fundamentally-sound 3-4 defense, has an NFL-long 30-game streak in which it has not allowed an opposing player to rush for at least 100 yards. The 49ers have not given up a rushing touchdown this season. The Niners have 19 takeaways (10 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries).
The Niners' top defensive lineman is right end Justin Smith, whose 163 consecutive starts is the fifth-longest active streak in the NFL. A Pro Bowler each of the previous two seasons, Smith is a strong run anchor and relentless pass rusher who has 4.5 sacks this season and 69.5 in his career. He seldom leaves the field. The other end is Ray McDonald, who is a full-time starter for the first time. He was inactive last week with a hamstring injury. McDonald is a strong, powerful player who has a knack for quickly recognizing screens and reverses. Sopoaga is a sturdy nose tackle against the run who also provides an inside pass rush. Ricky Jean Francois is a key backup who has started games at both nose tackle and end. He is an instinctive player who finds the ball quickly.
The 49ers arguably employ the NFL's best duo of inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They share the team lead with 42 solo tackles apiece. A Pro Bowler in each of his first four seasons, Willis led the NFL in tackles in two of those years. He is athletic, fast, versatile, powerful and smart. Willis directs traffic on defense, he hits hard (three forced fumbles) and he can over tight ends and running backs. Like Willis, Bowman has all the tools to be an elite player. He has big-time speed and is explosive when he gets close to the ballcarrier. Outside backer Ahmad Brooks is a powerful, high-motor pass rusher who is tough to block. Parys Haralson is a tough player who also has forced three fumbles. First-round draft choice Aldon Smith was the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month in October. He has a team-leading 6.5 sacks – all since Oct. 2. Smith is the 49ers' version of Jason Pierre-Paul, a gifted and relentless pass rusher who will improve as his understanding of the game grows.
Left cornerback Carlos Rogers is playing the best football of his seven-year career. He has good range and anticipation and leads the team with three interceptions. On the other side, Tarell Brown has been steady in man coverage and broken up seven passes. The third corner rookie Chris Culliver, is a smart and instinctive player. When the 49ers go to their nickel defense, Culliver steps in at corner and Rogers moves inside. Strong safety Donte Whitner was signed as a free agent from Buffalo. He will come up and is a force against the run and also has the cover skills of a corner. Dashon Goldshon is an extremely physical player who looks to make the big hit. He also has good ball awareness. Reggie Smith has been productive in the dime package.
The 49ers are strong across the board on special teams. With the speedy Ginn as their primary return man, they are third in the NFL in kickoff return average (28.8 yards) and fifth on punt returns (12.5). Ginn has scored touchdowns on a 102-yard kickoff return and a 55-yard punt return – both in the opener vs. Seattle. Punter Andy Lee is second in the league in both gross average (50.2) and met average (43.3). Kicker David Akers, whom the Giants know well from his days in Philadelphia, has hit 19 of 21 field goal attempts, including all four from 50 yards and out, and has 24 touchbacks. San Francisco's kickoff and punt coverage teams are both ranked in the league's top half.
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