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49ers vs. Giants preview

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: MetLife Stadium, Meadowlands, N.J. TV: FOX

The 5-4 San Francisco 49ers travel to New Jersey this weekend to face the 3-6 New York Giants. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez are here with a preview:

Graziano: Paul, I see Aldon Smith is back from his suspension just in time to face the struggling Giants. What do the 49ers expect to be able to get out of Smith in his first game?

Gutierrez: Are we talking realistically or hopefully? For the purposes of this conversation, let’s go with a combo. Look, Smith has been able to work out at the Niners' facility during his nine-game suspension and attend team meetings, but he was banned from team practices and games. So there's no telling what kind of football shape he'll be in.

That being said, his skill set as a pass-rusher is needed badly in Santa Clara. The Niners have just 15 sacks, tied for 24th in the league, and all they need from Smith is for him to pin his ears back and rush Eli Manning. There's not much scheme involved there, really, especially if the other linebackers are coached up. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said a couple of weeks ago that he expected Smith to be full-go and without limitations when he returns. Jim Harbaugh was a little more hesitant. I’d lean toward Fangio on this one.

Do the Giants expect Smith to be back to his sack-happy self, meaning they’d have to go max protect for Manning, and if so, how does that affect what the Giants want to do offensively, particularly running the ball? And what is the latest on Rashad Jennings?

Graziano: Jennings returned to practice Wednesday, and barring a setback they expect him to play Sunday and resume his role as the bell cow in their offense. They're 0-4 without him, averaging 83 rush yards per game as opposed to the 121 they were averaging with him. He's a three-down back who can pick up the blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield as well as pick up those "dirty" yards (as he calls them) on first and second downs.

The Giants' offense will run much better with Jennings back in the lineup, assuming he's fully healthy. And that's a big part of their ability to contain Smith and the 49ers' pass rush -- forcing San Francisco to respect the Giants' ability and determination to run the ball. Leaving their tackles alone to handle Smith would be a bad idea at this point, as they are not playing well. The offensive line is one of many weak spots on this team, and the only time it's looked good was earlier in the season when the Giants were running their up-tempo, run-based offense with all of their weapons. They still won't have Victor Cruz, who's out for the year, but getting Jennings back will help in many ways.

Overall, how different is this 49ers defense from the dominating unit of the past couple of years, and what is the impact of losing Patrick Willis?

Gutierrez: It's a completely different unit. Not only is Willis gone for the season with that chronic injury to his left big toe, but nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is still working his way back after suffering a torn left biceps in camp and NaVorro Bowman is still recuperating from the devastating injury to his left knee from the NFC title game in January. Oh, and Aldon Smith has been out all season serving his nine-game suspension for general malfeasance, though, as you noted above, he's about to make his season debut.

Yet, the defense has not really been the Niners' problem this season; that would be an inconsistent offense that goes from being a pass-happy attack to a power-running attack and back again. Consider: Even with all of the attrition and injuries, the Niners' defense is the No. 2-ranked total defense in the NFL. The loss of Willis would seemingly be a crushing blow to a team with Super Bowl-or-bust aspirations, but it is cushioned with the inspired play of rookie Chris Borland, who has had 18 and 17 tackles in the past two games, and recovered the key fumble in OT Sunday that led to the game-winning field goal at New Orleans. Borland is no Willis, but then again, no one is.

The Giants gave up 350 yards rushing to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, their most given up on the ground since the Carter administration. Why should the 49ers not run the ball in New Jersey?

Graziano: The only reason would be if they didn't want to win. What the Giants showed Sunday in Seattle was a complete inability to handle Seattle's basic zone-read run game. They bought the play fake every time, and the only time they stuck with the quarterback was when he did hand it off to Marshawn Lynch. If they'd gone into the game intentionally trying to make the wrong play on every zone-read play, they couldn't have done as good a job of it as they actually did. It was a fiasco.

The Giants are without three of their top four cornerbacks, a couple of whom were actually big helps in run support, and they're without middle linebacker Jon Beason. They'll also likely be without weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams this week, as he's struggling to work his way back from a concussion. So they're thin on defense, but the guys who are playing up front -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, Jameel McClain, Mike Patterson -- have to do a better job of stopping the run than they did last week, or it's going to be ultra-simple to control the clock and beat them.

Part of the success the Seahawks had running the ball was the 107 yards Russell Wilson had on the ground, including 64 on read-option runs. How similar is the 49ers' and Colin Kaepernick's run game to what the Seahawks do?

Gutierrez: Are we talking this season, or last? Because while there is no doubt that the read-option was a huge part of Kaepernick's arrival on the national consciousness, it has been virtually nonexistent as a play call this season. Sure, Kaepernick is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and is on pace to rush for a career-high 530 yards, but his running game has been more threat than design, if that makes sense. It's all part of the Niners' desire to keep him healthy, obviously, and to make him more of a pocket passer. Still, given the way the Seahawks shredded the Giants' run defense, I would be shocked -- shocked! -- if the Niners shied away from pounding the rock with Frank Gore to set up the read-option for Kaepernick.

OK, perhaps trite or maybe even a tired question at this stage of his career, but can you still spell "elite" without "Eli"?

Graziano: I never liked getting into the "elite" game, because I don't think there's more than three or four quarterbacks in the world who truly fit that word; otherwise, what does the word really mean? But Manning is the least of the Giants' problems. He's on pace to throw 30 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, which the Giants would have signed up for in a heartbeat after he threw 27 interceptions last year. He has thrown only two since Week 2, and he has clearly taken to a new offense designed to lean on the run game and the short, high-percentage passing game and limit turnovers.

The offense has fallen apart around Manning due to the Cruz and Jennings injuries, but he's got a really nice thing going with rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. right now, and he even got Preston Parker into the mix with a big game Sunday. I think the story of the Giants over the next couple of years will be about how well they can rebuild the team around Manning, who's holding up his end of the bargain as steward of the new offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo.

Good stuff, Paul. I know you have another long flight coming this week, so travel safe and I look forward to seeing you Sunday in my home state.