NEW YORK, New York - The 49ers are playing a familiar foe in a desperate New York Giants team (3-6) Sunday.
It will be San Francisco's fourth road trip in their last five games, and their longest trip of the year. After Sunday, they will play four of six at Levi's Stadium, and will have to board a plane just once thanks to a road game against the Oakland Raiders.
The 49ers (5-4) are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, and will need a strong finish to make the postseason for the fourth straight season.
We asked The Giants Beat's David Aitken about the Giants, who are coming off four straight losses following last week's 38-17 drubbing in Seattle.
Niners Digest: Much was made about new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s new offense and the Giants' transition to it. What makes that offense different than before, and how has that transition been going for Eli Manning and Co.?
David Aitken: The help he is getting has been another story. The Giants have dealt with their fair share of injuries this season, of note on offense has been the season-ending injury to Victor Cruz and the injury to Rashad Jennings who is just scheduled to come back Sunday after missing the team’s four straight losses.
This offense was built for Cruz, a master of working the slot and making plays with the ball in his hands. Jennings, a solid all-around back with good pass catching ability, provides an outlet in the receiving game and the every-down consistency that keeps the offense balanced. In the absence of Cruz, Rueben Randle has struggled as the team’s number one target, although Odell Beckham has been on an upward trajectory destined towards being the featured receiver since his debut.
The team has really struggled without Jennings, as rookie Andre Williams is a one-dimensional runner at this point and is frequently subbed off for the marginally talented but well-balanced Peyton Hillis in passing situations.
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Niners Digest: It seems like whenever Tom Coughlin is on the hot seat, he guides his team to a Super Bowl. This Giants team has looked far from a championship contender, but is there reason to believe Coughlin has another turnaround in him at age 68? And how much time does he have left of the sideline?
Aitken: At this point, it seems up in the air. There is very little being said either way about whether Tom Coughlin will be fired or even walk away on his own terms. You alluded to his age, and given his age it doesn’t seem out of the question for Coughlin to call it quits on his own. After all, with two Super Bowl championships in New York, he doesn’t have much left to prove.
This season has been disappointing, and there can be some questions raised over Coughlin being too trustworthy in the “old guard” and not letting some new faces prove their worth. At this point though, there is a marked difference between the team that won three straight and the team that has now dropped four straight.
The Giants came into this season with a roster good enough to compete, but key injuries have seen to marginalizing some of the very strengths the Giants expected to have. Beckham and Cruz have played just one full game together, the team just cannot run the ball whatsoever without Rashad Jennings, and Geoff Schwartz was a big signing on the offensive line that still hasn’t played a game yet.
Defensively, Jon Beason reverted to his Carolina injury-plagued nature. The Giants made noise signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond, hoping to have one of the best secondaries in the league, but Thurmond, Prince Amukamara, and Trumaine McBride are all on injured reserve and Rodgers-Cromartie has spent over a month being limited with injuries of his own.
As for whether Coughlin deserves to be out, I don’t think so. The Giants had a winning formula and the talent to execute it, but it has been destroyed by injuries at this point. In an ultra-competitive NFC, this team simply just isn’t good enough. Also, the Giants had a huge overhaul from a new offensive coordinator to many new players coming during the offseason. This in a way was the transitional season that 2013 should have been.
Niners Digest: Losing Beason for the season with a toe injury has hurt in a significant way. But it can’t be the only reason the Giants defense has been getting gashed lately. What do you attribute the defense’s recent failings to?
Aitken: It’s a combination of a number of things. Going into last Sunday, the Giants felt much more worried about their pass defense than run defense, especially with second-year defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins playing some excellent football. The biggest issues throughout the season have been the big plays in the passing game (the Giants on a per-pass basis are easily the worst team in preventing 20+ yard passing plays), and defending the tight end.
As for why there have been struggles, let’s start with the things they cannot really control. As I mentioned above, the Giants have dealt with a number of significant injuries. Particularly, the team’s defensive back core has been ravaged. Three of the team’s top four corners are now on injured reserve, and Rodgers-Cromartie has been limited throughout most of this four-game losing skid. Beason, the team’s vocal leader, played in just four games before being put on IR, and didn’t taste victory once during any of the games he dressed for.
As for things the Giants can control, it starts up front. The Giants are just not generating enough pass rush. I mentioned in the Coughlin question that he could be seen as too trusting of the old guard, and that seems the case on the defensive line. Mathias Kiwanuka has not been productive at all this season, and he’s taking snaps away from free agent signing Robert Ayers and 2013 3rd round pick Damontre Moore. Ayers has been a spark to the pass rush when on the field, and it seems strange that he is not seeing more time.
Moore came in last year as a raw rookie and he’s still in need of polish, but looks to be a player that could at least contribute in passing situations. As for the other end, Jason Pierre-Paul is having a good season, but the strength of his game is in his ability to play both the run and rushing the passer effectively rather than being the pass rushing dynamo the Giants thought they had in 2011. Johnathan Hankins is having a great season, and is starting to show some prowess as a pass rusher as well.
[Related: Giants run defense has something to prove]
Niners Digest: It looks like Rashad Jennings is going to play Sunday after missing the team’s last four losses with a knee injury. What does he bring to the offense and how much were the Giants missing him while he was gone?
Aitken: I touched on this a bit in the first question, but it can’t be stressed enough how much the Giants missed Jennings. When Jennings went down with injury in Week 5, the running game essentially left with him.
It’s easy to see in the yards-per-carry difference between Jennings and rookie Andre Williams: a solid 4.4 compared to a meager 2.9, respectively. It goes further than that though. Jennings’ injury left the Giants in the quandary of either trusting Andre Williams in the every-down back situations he is not yet comfortable, or subbing out Williams for Peyton Hillis in passing situations. The Giants chose the latter, and the lack of balance it gave the Giants offense was easily recognizable. Hillis was not a threat on the ground, and when Williams was in the game the opposition knew to key in on the run.
What the Giants really miss from Jennings is the ability to keep defenses honest from the standard three receiver set that is a staple of Ben McAdoo’s offense. He is, in addition, just a more patient runner than Williams is at this point and can find space where Williams’ cannonball style of running does not.
Niners Digest: After allowing 350 rushing yards to the Seahawks last week, what do you expect of the Giants run defense Sunday? Will it be a turnaround performance or will it be another poor showing?
Aitken: Well, if the Giants get gashed for anything close to 350 yards again, I don’t think Perry Fewell will survive to coach this defense the following week. I think the Giants will be relatively stout against the traditional runs the 49ers throw at the Giants up the middle, and I will stick my neck out and say they’ll defend the read option plays the 49ers run better than last week as well.
Still, I think it is going to cause the Giants some problems, and in particular I think San Francisco poses a bigger threat of creating the big passing play off the back of the run game than Seattle did last week too. The 49ers may adjust to what Seattle did, 350 yards on the ground would make anybody take notice, but come Sunday I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers actually stick with this season's more pass oriented philosophy and that pays dividends in itself.