Behind Enemy Lines: Part I

The Giants Beat lead writer David Aitken goes behind enemy lines and asks Niners Digest publisher Chris Biderman five burning questions as we draw closer to Sunday's matchup between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers.

David Aitken | The Giants Beat

Last Sunday the Giants were eaten alive on the ground in Seattle. While the 49ers have leaned on the pass more this season, could they take a page out of rival Seattle's book and come at the Giants with a heavy dose of the read-option?

Chris Biderman | Niners Digest

They certainly could. The question is, will they? Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has come under scrutiny this season for an over reliance on the pass. It could be because the offensive line wasn’t playing at nearly the level it was over the last three seasons, particularly in blocking for the run. Last year’s data suggests the 49ers faced more eight-plus man fronts than any team in football, yet they still ran the ball at the second-highest rate (Seattle was first). Last week’s game in New Orleans, particularly the first half, was a sign the team could be reverting to that.

This year’s offense is far more likely to check into a passing play at the line of scrimmage when opponents load the box with eight or more players. I would imagine the Giants would be doing a lot of that Sunday, which could mean another pass-heavy game for the 49ers. If defenses struggle in one particular area one week, normally they bounce back and improve the next week. It’s hard to see a Tom Coughlin defense doing otherwise. That being said, New York has allowed 150-plus rushing yards in four of their last five games. I would expect San Francisco to feature the read option with rookie backup Carlos Hyde more so than Frank Gore. Gore is the classic downhill runner while Hyde worked in a read-option system during his time at Ohio State. If those looks work for the running backs, then I would expect Colin Kaepernick to try and get some chunk plays on his own as well later in the game if the Giants bite on the backs. Kaepernick is still looking for his first 100-yard game on the ground this season.

David Aitken | The Giants Beat

Colin Kaepernick is presently the league's most sacked quarterback. What do you attribute this to? How much can be put on the offensive line relative to Kaepernick himself?

Chris Biderman | Niners Digest

It’s absolutely a combination of the two. The 49ers offensive line has been wildly inconsistent in 2014. That’s due, in part, to the right side - guard Alex Boone (holdout) and Anthony Davis (shoulder surgery) - missing the entire offseason program and just about all of training camp. Jonathan Martin received most of the snaps at right tackle while Davis was dealing with a knee injury earlier in the season. And before the bye week in Denver, the 49ers lost starting Daniel Kilgore for the season with a broken ankle. They inserted rookie third-round pick Marcus Martin into the lineup in his place. Martin is just 20 and made his first start against the Rams, when San Francisco allowed eight sacks. But Kaepernick also has a few bad habits, one of which is holding on to the ball too long. Another is overreacting to pressure and leaving the pocket when it’s unnecessary. He’s improved on keeping his eyes upfield as time has gone on, but he has a hard time hanging in the pocket under pressure. Instead of making subtle moves in the pocket, like Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady, Kaepernick is more apt to leave it completely and try to make a play with his legs. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it breaks the play. Against the Saints Sunday, Kaepernick held on to the ball far too long. In one case, it led to a turnover when he fumbled at the end of the first half in his own territory. The encouraging thing for Kaepernick is that he doesn’t often repeat mistakes. I’d imagine getting rid of the ball sooner, even if he has to throw it away, was an emphasis during this week.

David Aitken | The Giants Beat

The statistics of Vernon Davis jump off the page in the wrong way. What is his lack of production down to?

Chris Biderman | Niners Digest

Davis has been dealing with an ankle injury and back spasms all season - both of which caused him to miss time. He’s very aware of his body, perhaps to a fault. Even when healthy, he’s one of those guys that’s always stretching to the point where it seems compulsive. The injuries haven’t allowed him to be himself, and the stats very much reflect that. When describing his back injury, Davis said it felt like he was stabbed with a knife and it was getting twisted into his back. He also noted he expects the injuries to be with him the entire season. It’s clear when watching him play they are on his mind, and it’s led to a few drops. In turn, his targets are down. But Davis is running a little bit better lately and looking more like the guy that caught 13 TDs last season.

Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are all excellent defenders San Francisco has been or will continue to be without this season. Who are they missing the most? Do you expect Aldon Smith to feature heavily in his first action back this Sunday?

Chris Biderman | Niners Digest

The odd thing about this 49ers team is coming into the season, many believed they would see a significant drop off because of Bowman’s knee ailments and Smith’s suspension. But the defense hasn’t missed a beat. It’s second in the NFL in yardage. It’s the offense that’s been the cause for the 5-4 record (with the exception to Peyton Manning’s huge night Week 7). With the way reserve linebackers Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite are playing, it would seem Smith has been the most difficult player for the 49ers to replace. If there’s one weakness of this defense, it’s consistently getting to the quarterback. However, rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch has been one of the pleasant surprises at outside linebacker, quickly rising to the starting lineup in Smith’s absence. He leapfrogged second-year player Corey Lemonier, who provided next to nothing in the pass rush during the team’s 1-2 start. Lynch was inserted into the lineup, and San Francisco’s defense got a big boost. Now, they will be able to rotate Ahmad Brooks, Smith and Lynch, which could prove to be a fierce combination of pass rushers going forward. Smith has 42 sacks in 43 career games and there was simply no way the 49ers could replicate that during his suspension.

David Aitken | The Giants Beat

Do you expect this to be Jim Harbaugh's final season as the 49ers head coach? Will the final result of this season even mater?

Chris Biderman | Niners Digest

It’s my belief that the chatter about Harbaugh’s uncertain future is team orchestrated. I can’t say this with any authority, but it would appear to me these leaks are strategic moves from the front office to create a narrative. Here’s why: Harbaugh is notoriously difficult to work with. And perhaps three straight seasons of deep playoff runs has led to Harbaugh’s message to his players wearing thin. How do you change the message and avoid complacency? Create chaos. And it just so happens Harbaugh thrives in chaos. The leaks are done in a way to galvanize the team and get it to play hard, even if it’s tired of Harbaugh’s antics. Also, should things go awry and the 49ers don’t make the playoffs, or lose early in the playoffs, the team has an out. It can point to all the chatter in a “See, we told you so” kind of way. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers finding a better option to win a Super Bowl than Harbaugh. If Harbaugh were to go deep into the playoffs, then the organization fires the coach, what kind of message does that send the players? There is certainly a lot of truth to the Harbaugh rumors in the sense that there is conflict between Harbaugh and some execs. He’s a guy that’s constantly competing with everyone, even people he should be trying to build strong relationships with. But similar things were said about Bill Walsh at times and things turned out pretty good for him. If the 49ers’ intent is to compete for championships each season, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they do so with another coach at the helm.


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