Game Matchups: 49ers offense/Jets defense

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and Green and White Report's Rick Laughland break down the matchups inSunday's pivotal contest between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets. Here we take a look at what to watch when San Francisco's offense is on the field.


After finishing 29th in the NFL in passing offense last year, the 49ers went out and did something about it in the offseason, adding veteran free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to their receiver corps along with first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins. Moss and Manningham have provided immediate upgrades, though Moss hasn't had the impact some expected after scoring San Francisco's first touchdown of the season on a pass from Alex Smith in the season opener at Green Bay.

Moss has just eight receptions for 88 yards through three games – three other 49ers have more catches – and his longest catch is just for 20 yards. But the Niners looked to him more often in last week's loss at Minnesota, where he was targeted a season-high six times, and with Darrelle Revis out, San Francisco is likely to test the edges with Moss, Manningham and Michael Crabtree, who has emerged as San Francisco's go-to wideout with team-leading totals of 19 receptions for 183 yards. The Jets must also be ready for a regular dose of tight end Vernon Davis, who is perhaps San Francisco's most explosive weapon in the passing game. Davis is a tough matchup for defenders, and he has four touchdown receptions in the first three games to go along with his 13 receptions for 169 yards and team-leading 13.0 average.

After breaking out with a career season last year, Alex Smith is off to an even better start this year and is currently the NFL's seventh-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 102.7. Smith is completing 69.6 percent of his passes and spreads the ball around well to several different targets. He threw his first interception in 250 regular-season attempts last week in the fourth quarter against the Vikings, ending his franchise-record string of passes without a pick.

The Niners likely will come at the Jets again with a diversified underneath passing game, but expect San Francisco to start opening up its attack since Smith has looked deep very few times in the first three games and now he needs to start stretching defenses. One area the 49ers are vulnerable: Smith has been sacked 10 times and hit several other times as the San Francisco's offensive line has struggled to consistently protect him. That finally had an effect on the outcome last week, and the Jets can cause problems if they get to him again Sunday. Left tackle Joe Staley – the NFC's starter in the Pro Bowl last season – was beaten for several sacks by premier pass rushers Clay Matthews of Green Bay and Jared Allen of Minnesota.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you're probably aware that the Jets will be without All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis for the remainder of the season due to an ACL tear. There is no doubt this a crushing blow to a secondary that has dropped out of the NFL's top ten rankings, allowing just over 218 yards through the air per contest. The most alarming statistic this season is that opponents are converting a league-high 56 percent of third down attempts against New York.

Rex Ryan is going back to the drawing board shifting cornerback Antonio Cromartie to the top spot, followed in suit by Kyle Wilson and Ellis Lankster. Ryan has voiced his intentions of giving running back Joe McKnight a shot in the secondary with desperate times calling for desperate measures. While Cromartie can hold his own against about 90 percent of NFL receivers, the real story is whether cornerbacks Wilson, Lankster and diminutive, but agile Isaiah Trufant will be able to hold up their end of the bargain. With Revis in the mix, the Jets played predominantly press man coverage often times leaving their top two cornerbacks on islands, allowing them to bring safeties in the box to stop the run and rush the quarterback.

Rex Ryan called Vernon Davis the NFL's best all-around tight end

New York has tallied just three sacks in three games this season, a trend that will have to change course if the Jets hope to come out on top on Sunday. With the current personnel, Ryan and company will have to sprinkle in a mix of zone coverage and multiple fronts without the luxury of having two lock-down cornerbacks on the outside. Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree will have the most favorable matchups along with explosive tight end Vernon Davis. While the 49ers are not known for a prolific pass offense, there should be plenty of plays to be made against a Jets secondary in a state of flux.


As is their standard approach, the 49ers will look immediately to set the game's tempo on the ground, and they will come right at the Jets, seeking the soft spots in a New York defense that ranks 28th in the NFL in stopping the run. Despite San Francisco's intentions for a more balanced attack this year, the Niners' offense still is bases on a power rushing attack led by the hard-charging, slashing bursts of veteran Frank Gore, who last year became the 49ers' all-time career rushing leader.

Gore is off to another fine start this year, rushing for 264 yards in the first three games while averaging a healthy 5.9 yards per carry. The Niners made a mistake by not going to Gore more often last week, and that is an error the team is not likely to repeat this week. If the Jets can't stop the run, they are in for a long afternoon as the Niners are likely to get back to basics on offense after last week's stunning upset loss.

Gore is complemented by slippery backup Kendall Hunter, a productive change-of-pace back, and Bruce Miller is a fine blocking fullback who also has playmaking ability as a receiver out of the backfield. The 49ers have a mauling run-blocker in left guard Mike Iupati, and he pulls often to lead the way for Gore. The right side of tackle Anthony Davis and new starting right guard Alex Boone also has been strong blocking for the run, and Staley and center Jonathan Goodwin complete an offensive line that knows how to clear out space for the run game.

During Ryan's first two seasons at the helm, Gang Green was stout against the run and able to keep opposing ball carriers at bay. This year is a different story as the Jets find themselves amongst the bottom-dwellers in the league allowing nearly 149 rushing yards per game, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL.

While the Jets got younger and more explosive along the defensive line adding second year players Muhammad Wilkerson, Kendrick Ellis and rookie Quinton Coples, they've struggled to set the edge and maintain their rushing lanes to prevent big plays on the ground. New York started Coples in place of run stuffer Mike Devito this year, a move that has disrupted chemistry upfront. San Francisco running back Frank Gore poses a real threat to a Jets defense that hasn't tackled well or been able to hold run containment.

As much as Gore can ground and pound New York's defensive front, speedster Kendall Hunter's ability to bounce runs to the outside and make plays in the passing game could prove a thorn in the Jets' side. Gang Green's rush defense has been very shaky and is raising red flags for Ryan and the rest of his defensive coaching staff. While the 49ers seemed to abandon the running game last week when they fell behind to Minnesota, if Harbaugh and company stay patient and keep dishing a heavy dose of Gore and Hunter, they'll have the opportunity to eventually break off a big run that could change the complexion of Sunday's game.

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