Giants-49ers: Who has the edge


Giants-49ers: Who has the edge

Frank Gore was injured and thus, a non-factor in the Nov. 13 regular-season game against the Giants. It was the first time he finished with no yards, on six carries, in his seven-year career. Kendall Hunter picked up some of the slack that day, rushing for 40 yards on six carries. But as a team, the 49ers were limited to just 77 yards on the ground. The Giants' run defense, meanwhile, has given up an average of 105.5 yards per game on the ground against Atlanta and Green Bay in the playoffs, after surrendering 121.2 rushing yards per game in the regular season. Gore is healthy now, as evidenced by his rushing for 1,211 yards this season, the second-highest season total of his career.
EDGE: 49ers

Yes, we know all about Alex Smith's arrival, albeit six years after he was the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick, and how the confidence between his ears has translated to confidence throwing the ball. But now he's facing a fearsome unit that showed up late in the season. The Giants pass rush, bookended by DEs Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, has allowed their secondary to blanket receivers of late, limiting the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers to a combined 75.0 passer rating this postseason. Going back two games into the regular season, against the New York Jets and Dallas, the Giants have racked up 17 sacks in the four games while picking off four passes and shutting out tight ends from the end zone. Beware, Vernon Davis.
To hear Jerry Rice tell it, Brandon Jacobs is soft, huh? Nothing like a retired receiver, granted, the best receiver of all time, taking a shot at a current player and doing the current 49ers' defense no favors in the process while adding some bulletin board material. Plus, Ahmad Bradshaw has been playing on a bad foot since about the mid-point of the season and missed the Nov. 13 game at Candlestick. Bradshaw rumbled for a game-high 55 yards, on 18 carries, and the Giants could only gain 93 yards on the ground in 29 carries. The 49ers, though, have not missed a beat. After finishing with the top-ranked run defense, and not allowing a rushing TD until Week 16, at Seattle, the 49ers limited New Orleans to a mere 37 rushing yards, on 14 carries last week.
Can we stop with the "Is Eli Manning an elite QB" questions, at least for now? Truth is, he's playing out of his mind and he has been in the Giants' four-game winning streak, each game an elimination game, of sorts. When he has time, Manning, who threw for a career-high 4,933 yards this season, with 311 against the 49ers, can pick apart defenses with the best of them. But when he's pressured, he's flustered. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, WR Hakeem Nicks suddenly has a tweaked ankle. And a muddy field won't help the Giants' air assault. Meanwhile, the 49ers pass defense, which gave up 230.9 yards per game in the air in the regular season, was just shredded by Drew Brees for 462 yards. Can Justin Smith and Co. keep Manning off balance?
The 49ers led the NFL in kick returns, averaging 27.2 yards and returning one for a touchdown, a 102-yard gallop by Ted Ginn against Seattle on kickoff weekend. And against the Giants earlier this season, Ginn returned two kicks for 55 yards. But Ginn injured his right knee against the Saints last week and is questionable to play. Even if he cannot go, and is replaced by Kendall Hunter, the 49ers should still enjoy an advantage here as the Giants gave up 22.9 yards per return.
The Giants were in a three-way tie for 20th in kick return this season, with Dallas and St. Louis in averaging 23.3 yards, and had a long of 40 yards. Nothing really special there. And against the 49ers in November, Da'Rel Scott returned two kicks for 53 yards. On the season, Devin Thomas returned 25 kicks and averaged 24.3 yards. The 49ers allowed 23.1 yards per kick return, with a long of 39 yards.
Ginn also led the Niners' punt return team, which ranked fifth in the NFL with a 12.4 average. Ginn himself averaged 12.3 yards and he had an electrifying 55-yard return for a TD against the Seahawks in the opener. But if Ginn is a no-go, Kyle Williams will replace him. Williams only returned two punts in the regular season. Giants punter Steve Weatherford's 39.2-yards net average ranked 14th in the NFL and the Giants allowed a 9.9-yards per punt return average.
If ranking just 29th in the 32-team NFL in punt return wasn't bad enough for the Giants, who averaged 6.1 yards per return with a long of 18 yards (Aaron Ross averaged 7.1 yards on 14 returns), now they get to face All-Pro punter Andy Lee. He set an NFL record for net yardage average at 44.0 yards this season. And the 49ers allowed 8.1 yards per return.
The expected NFL Coach of the Year, as a rookie, against the venerable lion, who has gone from being on the proverbial Big Apple hot seat a month ago to being prepped for his induction into Canton. That's how fast and fickle things can move in the coaching game. Harbaugh has done a magnificent job as an offensive mind and locker room psychiatrist, especially in green-lighting the gutsy call to have Alex Smith run around the left end for a 28-yard touchdown against the Saints. Coughlin, meanwhile, has maintained his steady, steely resolve that has translated to a defense that has gotten healthy and dangerous the last month. A clash of wills and specialties here. But we'll go with experience over exuberance...for now.
EDGE: GiantsPREDICTION: 49ers 23, Giants 21

What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense


What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.

“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”

The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.

“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”

Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.

“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.

“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”

Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.

“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”

Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.

Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.

“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.

Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”

* * *

EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine


49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine

The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.

Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.

In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.

Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.

After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.