Photo credit: 49ers
Back to East Rutherford. After a week at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, the 49ers are returning to that same turf field which saw six of their players injured last week, all of whom are out this week. Here’s what to look for, excluding that turf.
The rushing plan
Thus far, the New York (New Jersey) Giants have not been stellar at defending the run (nor have the 49ers, though much of that was Kyler Murray’s scrambling). They’ve allowed 136 rushing yards per game (eighth-worst) combined against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears. With Nick Mullens at quarterback, San Francisco will hope their deficiencies remain.
Without Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, there’s a discernible lack of recent experience and speed in San Francisco’s backfield. McKinnon, though agile and intelligent at exploiting angles, is not the speedster he once was and thus far, has only carried the ball six times in two games.. Wilson is a fantastic pass catcher and while he hits the hole at full speed, he’s more in the mold of a power back, filling the Coleman role.
That leaves JaMycal Hasty, who was the clear second speed back in camp. Clearly a snap count increase is coming for McKinnon and Wilson, but Hasty is the closest to a one-for-one replacement for Mostert, leaving an interesting proposition for Shanahan to potentially employ a running back with no NFL tape. I wouldn’t expect heavy reps for Hasty, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he cracks the 10-snap mark as something of a change-of-pace option in his debut.
Giants’ use of three tight ends
No team uses three tight end sets more than the Giants, who have two former 49ers in their tight end ranks in Levine Toilolo and Kaden Smith. It’s an astonishing evolution for a team which used 13 personnel 1 percent of the time last year. That number is now 22 percent, way above the league average of 3 percent in this and last season. On the 49ers’ side, they use 21 personnel 41 percent of the time, by far the most in the NFL (league average of 8 percent).
As Kerry Hyder said Friday, “They like to get physical.”
San Francisco hasn’t excelled at stopping the run thus far, allowing 142 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth-worst, though is in large part due to Murray’s off-schedule escapades. Without Saquon Barkley, you have to wonder if the Giants stick to that heavy personnel, and if they do, whether the 49ers’ battered front and Dre Greenlaw-less linebackers corps can handle it.
Garrett (Coryell) offense versus Ahkello Witherspoon or Jason Verrett
Jason Garrett, the longtime Dallas Cowboys head coach who underachieved at every turn, is now the play caller with the Giants. He’s known as being adaptable pre-game, in designing a game plan to attack the deficiencies in other teams, but mostly unable to adapt during the game. This, however, is his first season as a play caller since he began his head coaching tenure with the Cowboys, and head coach Joe Judge tried to convince reporters the Giants would adapt during the course of games.
Garrett is an Air Coryell disciple of Norv Turner, who learned the offense from Ernie Zampese. It’s an offense which attempts to stretch the field vertically, unlike the short-yardage-oriented West Coast offense, which Kyle Shanahan is an estranged descendant of (he’s more a disciple of his father, Mike Shanahan, but his offense looks almost nothing like the 49ers’ offense of old). The Giants are without Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shephard, but Darius Slayton (and Evan Engram) is still a dynamic receiving target, who will likely target the field side corner in Ahkello Witherspoon or Jason Verrett.
That will be a crucial matchup. When Witherspoon struggles, he overthinks himself and can struggle tracking deep routes. Verrett, meanwhile, has not been healthy in years, and when he returned to the field last year, for two snaps, he was burned on back-to-back plays by the Steelers’ Diontae Johnson for a deep pass interference call and then an easy touchdown. If those two can hold down Slayton, it will be a long day for Daniel Jones.
Nick Mullens adjustments?
Will Shanahan adapt his offense for Nick Mullens? It seems like that won’t be the case, at least for the most part. Mullens, discernibly, is as knowledgable about this offense as anyone, including Jimmy Garoppolo, and said he’s worked on his arm strength. The question, then, is not whether Mullens knows what he’s doing, but whether he can accomplish that in-game.
Does Shanahan have the faith required in Mullens to call the same plays for Garoppolo? We saw his extended, mostly impressive run with a barebones offense back in 2018, but he won’t have George Kittle to rely on this Sunday. The partnership between Mullens and Jordan Reed will likely prove crucial in the success of the passing game on Sunday.
New defensive line additions
No Nick Bosa. No Solomon Thomas. No Dee Ford. In come Ziggy Ansah and Dion Jordan. As a result of injuries, Ansah has failed to be his old productive self, last seen in 2017 (12.0 sacks), but is familiar with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Jordan, meanwhile, looked lost in camp. Both will have to play extended snaps on Sunday. There’s simply no avoiding it. Arik Armstead and Kerry Hyder can’t take every snap.
How healthy is Ansah? Clearly he wasn’t healthy enough or cheap enough for the 49ers to take a swing at him at the start of the season, or when they worked him out a second time. He’s in a new defensive scheme without the same sort of depth to protect him. Jordan had an extended time within this scheme to prepare and has discernibly been healthy. It’s clear he’ll never reach that promise which came with being the third overall pick, but he only needs to be serviceable. Camp was not an indication he could accomplish that, but Sunday will be the true test.