By Paul Dottino
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Welcome to the NFL's version of hockey's neutral-zone trap: The San Francisco 49ers (7-1) rely on a power running game spelled by a short-pass attack, a rugged rushing defense and a very strong dose of special teams.
So exactly what are the Giants (6-2) getting themselves into when they head to Candlestick Park on Sunday?
The general consensus in the locker room is that 49ers coach and former Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh has brought the Monsters of the Midway mentality to the West Coast. His team is extremely physical on both sides of the ball, does not try to fool anybody and follows a low-risk game plan. They run 55 percent of the time on first down and 55 percent on second down. The Niners also show a stronger tendency to run more once they get over the 50-yard line. In short, they play offense close to the vest, and ask the defense and special teams to set up QB Alex Smith in good field position so he can hand off to RB Frank Gore or make short, high-percentage throws.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin likely would enjoy watching the 49ers - if they weren't playing his team. Anyway, he's got to worry about RB Ahmad Bradshaw (fractured foot), who's not expected to play, and WR Hakeem Nicks (hamstring), who is hoping to play. WR Jerrel Jurnigan (hip) likely would have been giving the punt return duties, but he's been hurting and probably won't go.
In the meantime, Coughlin has taken a measure to spark his kickoff return team - Devin Thomas said he's been replaced - with Danny Ware and Da'rel Scott in line for an opportunity.
Let's get to the Giants' three key matchups:
1. Giants' front seven vs. Niners RB Frank Gore. Gore (782 rushing yards, 4.9 avg., 5 TDs) is more than the focal point of the 49ers' offense - HE IS the team's offense. Over the past five games, he's averaged 127 yards on 6.3 yards per carry. He does nothing fancy - it's all about using his power and momentum to break tackles and push the pile. Gore has the patience to find the hole, but he's must more apt to lower his shoulder or churn his legs than dance around a defender. The Giants, who significantly cut down on their missed tackles against the Patriots, must make sure to follow proper tackling technique and swarm to the ball when trying to contain Gore. The Giants, by the way, are allowing exactly 127 rushing yards per game. No joke, really.
2. Giants RB Brandon Jacobs vs. Niners' front seven. Jacobs ran with power and authority against the Patriots, enough to keep New England's defense honest with season highs of 18 carries and 72 yards (and a TD). The Niners are allowing just 71 rushing yards per game, thanks to a very physical and quick front seven. ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the key figures, although the defensive line - anchored by NT Isaac Sopoaga - is very stout. The Niners are sound in their technique and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher over the past 30 games. Jacobs, Ware and Scott do not have to run wild, but they've got to be effective enough to keep the Niners from overplaying the pass.
3. Giants' special teams vs. Niners' special teams. San Francisco has one of the most well-balanced and dynamic special teams units in the league so the Giants would be thrilled to battle them to a draw. Need evidence? WR Ted Ginn Jr. (29.2 KOR avg., 12.5 PR avg.) returned a kickoff AND a punt for a TD against the Seahawks earlier this season. Former Eagles PK David Akers has driven almost half of his kickoffs into the end zone and is capable of hitting field goals from beyond 50. P Andy Lee is averaging 50.2 yards with a 43.3-yard net. Each of these men are critical in establishing good field position. The 49ers' average start is their own 32, which is the best in the NFL.
PREDICTION: Giants 23, Niners 20
PREDICTION vs. the spread: 3-5
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