By Curt Macysyn
At this point in the season, the New York Football Giants (2-2) deserve a gimmee, so thankfully Big Blue faces an opponent that they should be able to put away easily. After two straight victories, the G-men find themselves atop the turbulent NFC East. Let that news digest for a moment: The Giants sit atop the division.
New York has earned its way to the top, and they actually face a three-game stretch that will likely define their season. After the 49ers come into town for a Sunday night contest, Big Blue faces the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back games that are not as daunting as first thought. But first thing’s first.
The 49ers are the NFL poster child for dysfunctionality, especially after general manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York unceremoniously jettisoned their uber-successful coach, Jim Harbaugh, after an 8-8 campaign. The duo then hired hand-picked successor Jim Tomsula to take over for Harbaugh, who attained a stellar 44-19-1 record by the Bay. Tomsula’s start has not been anything close to success that Harbaugh enjoyed, but then again, why tolerate a successful coach when you can hire a lapdog to run the team?
The Tomsula era has gotten off to a rocky (1-3) start, as the 49ers have lost three games in a row after a season opening win against the Minnesota Vikings. In the 49ers’ two road losses, the team was outscored 90 to 25 by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
Instead of focusing on Harbaugh, perhaps the 49ers’ brass should have concentrated more on a roster that eroded quickly from the retirements of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, to the domestic violence charges and overdue dismissal of Ray McDonald, to other domestic violence issues of running back Bruce Miller, to the curious sabbatical of offensive lineman Anthony Davis.
Jekyll and Hyde
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has gotten off to a rocky start with a 67.7 quarterback rating and five interceptions in the first four games of the season. Against Green Bay on Sunday, Kaepernick was only 13 for 25 passing for 160 yards through the air. He did not throw a touchdown pass and was picked off once by the Packers defense.
The Giants hope that Kaepernick will continue his slow start, so they can concentrate on slowing down running back Carlos Hyde. Hyde had a monster first game against the Viking with 168 rushing yards (6.5 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, but he has been quiet since then. Reggie Bush has battled some injuries for San Francisco and had one carry (zero yards) against Green Bay.
The receiving corps highlights the team offensively, but with Kaepernick slumping, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton have not been able to get on track. Smith, in his first year with the 49ers, was a favorite long ball target for Joe Flacco when Smith was with the Baltimore Ravens.
Another strength of the 49ers is their dynamic duo of tight ends, as Garrett Celek and Vernon Smith have combined for 19 catches. The receiving statistics have been suppressed by the fact that the offensive line cannot protect Kaepernick, having given up 14 sacks already. By contrast, the Giants have allowed four sacks in four games.
The 49ers’ depleted roster on defense has taken the heart and soul away from the franchise. Only NaVorro Bowman conjures up thoughts of the stout defense that once presided by San Francisco Bay. Bowman leads the team in tackles with 28 in four games, and he remains the bell cow of the unit. Veteran safety Antoine Bethea is in his second year with the 49ers after eight season with the Indianapolis Colts. Bethea has 24 total tackles and one quarterback sack on the season. The team’s other safety, Eric Reid, has been good, but not great for the 18th overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft. Reid had just 42 total tackles last season, but has 15 in four games this year.
The Giants may want to keep their eye on linebacker Aaron Lynch, who is new to the starting line-up this season. Lynch already has three quarterback sacks, after registering six all of last season. Another newcomer is cornerback Kenneth Acker, a rookie sixth round draft pick this year from SMU. Acker became the starter in training camp and has one of the two interceptions that the 49ers have this year. His 19 tackles by a cornerback are impressive as well.
Veteran Ahmad Brooks is still around, and he recently pleaded not guilty to sexual battery for groping an unconscious woman at Ray McDonald’s house (where else?) last December. Brooks has played in all four games for the 49ers this season, and he has not incurred any discipline from the NFL, either. Perhaps losing Borland, Willis and McDonald has caused the 49ers to pause for reflection in the case of Brooks, so he remains on the roster.
Players to Watch
NaVorro Bowman is the unquestioned leader of the 49ers defense, and he leads the team in tackles after four games. But Bowman did get frustrated with his compatriots on the defensive side of the ball in the blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Giants may want to target Bowman for some extra attention so that newbies – defensive tackle Quinton Dial, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch and cornerback Kenneth Acker – have to make plays in order for the defense to get off the field.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had an awful start to his season, and the Giants would like nothing more than to continue that futility. While Carlos Hyde is a threat from the backfield, it is unlikely that the former Ohio State star can be a one-man wrecking crew against Big Blue. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo might just want to dial up the same game plan that his unit had against Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor this week against Kaepernick to keep him in the pocket and in check. Kaepernick’s feet may pose more of a problem for the G-men than his arm.
These are two teams going in different directions, and the Giants should be able to handle the 49ers easily. In the match-up of head coaches, Big Blue’s Tom Coughlin has shown an impressive resiliency this season, while Jim Tomsula may be facing an uphill climb just to reach relevancy. In addition, Coughlin is always in control of his locker room, while Tomsula continues to face the ghost of Harbaugh-past.
This also is another contest where the Giants have the advantage at the quarterback position, and Eli Manning should look to continue the veteran game management that has been his trademark this season. Big Blue’s three-headed running back monster of Shane Vereen, Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings has given offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo options in the game planning, and the backs certainly complement what Odell Beckham, Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris bring to the party on the outside.
Curt Macysyn has been covering the New York Football Giants for the past four seasons for Examiner.com, and he is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). Born and raised in New Jersey, Curt attended Seton Hall Prep School in South Orange, N.J. and is a graduate of Rutgers University – New Brunswick. Follow him on Twitter @CurtMac23 for the latest NFL and New York Giants news.