This was a tough loss. The Giants coaches and the players came to play and everyone knew what was at stake. Understand from the outset of this recap that the Giants played a lot of inspired football. They fought tooth and nail and this was not a 'bad' game by any stretch. Eli was a play or two away from carrying this team to victory, and for that we have to celebrate the competitiveness of this team. Just watching the maturation and full bloom of Victor Cruz each game is enough to truly make me happy. He is a gem and he is the kind of player that can put us over the top.
How do we make this a "good" loss? A good loss is where players and coaches note their good play and figure out where they can do things better.
In our opinion, the 49ers coaches had their players better prepared. Eli Manning in his sleep is a better QB than Alex Smith on Red Bull, yet the 49ers won. Why? Let's look at two examples: the onside kick and the red zone.
1) The Onside Kick. Football is a game. And the game includes patterns and deception. Fakes are like bluffs in poker. Every now and then you have to use them to be any good because your cards are rarely going to be good enough to the point where you can simply line up and expect to win every hand or every play. You must mix it up. You must run 'counter' plays away from your blockers so that when you DO have your blockers going one way that the opponent is aware that they cannot SELLOUT vs the "expected" direction. So why is it that Coughlin/Quinn get snookered by the Q3 opening onside kickoff vs SF, just like they did vs PHL in Q4 of the Week 15 pivotal loss last season? It is about predictability and surprise. Why is it that the NY Giants never ever run fake punts, onside kicks themselves? For the same reason why they fall prey to it in the first place. There is a culture of straightness about these Giants coaches, the Rules Guys, showing up 5 minutes early for meetings and playing by the rules. As it has been pointed, yes, you can win a Super Bowl (XLII) without the fake, but you need them in the Super Bowl (XXI) and NFC Conference Championship (for XXV) to get there. Just like in the PHL game, the Giants players are 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and have about ~2 players running back to the ball to stop the fake. The 49ers have 5. And considering the Giants players are further away from the ball than the 49ers, there is easily a 5/7ths chance the Niners will recover the ball. Akers executed the kick perfectly, so in this instance it was not even close. Maybe next time Akers hits it a little less perfectly. Whatever. The point is that one team is executing, catching the other team off balance, taking intelligent and calculated risks. The other is reacting and playing by the expected rules. This onside kick changed the tempo of the game and the Giants never fully recovered. Yes, it was that pivotal.
2) The Red Zone. The Giants were 1 for 4 in the red zone today. There is a simplistic aphorism that we never stop quoting here: if you want to win on the road, you need TDs, not FGs. The Giants came away with 1 TD, 2 FGs and a turnover at the end of the game on downs. 13 points off of 4 trips. It should not be a complete coincidence to anyone here that the ONE lead the Giants took the entire game, it happened when the Giants got that red zone TD. It was a pretty pass and catch to Mario Manningham. It is the difference between winning and losing in the NFL. The 49ers deserve a great deal of credit for stiffening in the red zone, but this is what happens when you play against teams that are 7-1. They execute and they do not make your life easy. You have to overcome these challenges in order to win big games and championships. Why did the Giants not get more TDs? In the red zone, you need your TE more (think Ballard last week vs the Pats, not a coincidence it is the TE scoring in the red zone) and you need your playcalling to be near perfect. There is one playcall in this game that sticks out for me more than any other in the entire game. It is in Q1. It is the opening drive. The Giants are driving down the field. They have just run for 4 yards to the SF 9 yard line, and it is 2nd and 6. The playcall is a draw to Jacobs. Awful. For starters, at 2nd and 6, the Giants can pass OR run, so it is not as if the Niners are playing pass and are fooled by a draw (which is the main effectiveness for such a playcall). Second, this is Brandon Jacobs in the tight quarters of the red zone, and he does not have the acceleration that can make or break the success of that play. I'd rather take my chances with a flare/checkdown to isolate Jacobs than a draw. Third, the personnel is wrong for red zone. We have been clamoring for Da'Rel Scott, and in either of those playcalls, be it draw, flare or checkdown, I take my chances with the speed beating the SF LBers. The result of the play is no gain, the Giants come up short on 3rd down and kick a FG. You need 7's and the Giants got a 3. Do not misunderstand the overall sentiment about Gilbride's playcalling- it has been much improved overall this season and at times has been excellent. On that first drive, Gilbride made more than a few calls which enabled the Giants to get down to that point where they were in a 2nd and 6 situation in the red zone. So the message here is that the Red Zone magnifies small errors. If it happens in the middle of the field, the Giants have a much easier time converting the 3rd and 6 than they do at the 9 yard line. Every down in the red zone is simply crucial.
The good news is that the Giants are in a position to get better from these contests. You don't get better when you play against the Miami Dolphins and beat them with 40 minutes of football. You get better when you play against the Patriots and the Niners. Mistakes are magnified. It forces you to eliminate more of them, to play at a higher level, so that you can compete for wins and a championship when it counts in the playoffs. These teams expose your weaknesses and force you to get better. The Giants did some really good things, like stuffing the box and forcing Alex Smith to beat them. Good Fewell. But then they would lose to Smith when they were in zone and they would win vs Smith when they were in man coverage (anecdotal, we'll try to get more data this week by tape review). There were two moments where the Giants put Alex Smith in 3rd and super long, and each time they dropped 8 into coverage with a 3 man rush. The Niners got significant yardage vs zone in one of those instances, and negligible yardage vs man in the other. The significant yardage allowed for a long FG which was made by Akers. Vs weaker teams the 3 man rush is not going to be exposed, but here, it was. Maybe this is just my bias, but I really do not believe a 3 man rush is ever appropriate. Perhaps you can do it once per game in an unpredictable fashion, but when the Giants do it twice in 3rd and long, what does that say? If it can cost you 3 points vs Alex Smith, isn't it going to cost you more vs Brees or Rodgers in the playoffs? Here is to hoping that Fewell will figure this out now and not in January.
Eli Manning is having his best year as an NFL QB. He played another great game today. So it is with this stated in advance that we ask the next question- Did you notice how well-timed and effective the SF blitzes were? Eli looked like he was transported back to 2004, turned into a rookie. This is what we mean when we say the 49ers were well coached. If you blitz Eli and routinely give him a lot of pressure, he'll adapt quickly and figure it out. The 49ers were smarter against the veteran QB, using it infrequently. He was not ready for it, the OL was not able to pick it up as well either (perhaps because of the surprise) and the result was that Eli had trouble. This is the new blueprint if I am a defensive coordinator. Dial it up a couple of times a game and pick your spots. It is up to the Giants offense to observe this, adjust and get better.
Let's take a moment to realize that the Giants are playing A LOT better football now than they played in 2009 and 2010. In 2009 and 2010, whenever the Giants played against any team that was competent (saving the Bears in 2010), they got beat. And most of the time, they got exposed. In 2011, the Giants are playing against better competition and going toe to toe. So the overall message cannot be lost within the desire to win a title... we did not expect the Giants to be here playing as well as they are playing vs better teams. It is exciting. But the stakes are higher and we want more.
We are going to skip the good, bad and ugly. This game is GREAT if the players and coaches are taking notes and figuring out ways to improve in NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER against these better opponents. We'd like to think that at 6-3 the Giants still have ample opportunity to win enough games to get to the playoffs and be battle-tested. That has to be the objective now... to get better in this crucible of tough games. It is great to see the Giants playing competitive football. They just need to cut down on the mistakes and adjust to what is working and what is not working. If the adjustments and the improvements are made, the Giants will not only get to the playoffs, they'll be ready for a championship run. If they do not make those improvements, they'll fall short. Fewell and Gilbride have made SOME adjustments and have improved over what we expected at the beginning of the season. They are in a decent position but they need to do more. Lose the frequency of zone coverage. Use more of the RB underneath in pass. Use that TE as often as you can in the red zone. And fake a punt or onside kick once a season so that your specials are ready for it when it is done to them.
You never like to lose a game. But the Giants are giving us some very good football. Yes, they make mistakes and take penalties (Martin) etc.. but we are not seeing the underachievement of 2009 and 2010 that frustrated us. It was frankly embarrassing to witness the Giants get undressed by good teams. Thankfully that is in the past. Now that the team is making strides, all it needs to do is close out some more games, improve the level of their play and beat Dallas. There is an opportunity here in 2011. Let's see this team beat a Philly team next Sunday night, end the Eagles' season and continue ours.