49ers' Gragg ready for Giants' Strahan
January 04, 2003
Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer
Smeared in grass stains and drenched in sweat, tackle Scott Gragg had one more challenge after the 49ers' season-opening 16-13 win over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.
Following his near shutout of fearsome defensive end Michael Strahan, Gragg wanted to greet him, but he wasn't sure how Strahan would react.
After all, Strahan, who was coming off a league-record 22 1/2-sack season, was sack-less against Gragg in a close, last-minute loss. And Gragg, who squared off against Strahan every day for five seasons as his Giants' teammate, knew Strahan as a ferocious competitor. Often, Gragg would start blocking Strahan and would end up fighting him.
"I didn't know how to approach him after the game," Gragg admitted. He didn't have to; Strahan sought out Gragg.
"He said, 'Great game, great battle,' " Gragg recollected. "It's what you would hear from a teammate."
Now the two men will again lock helmets Sunday in an NFC wild-card playoff game. The winner of the matchup could very well determine who wins the game.
Gragg acted like quarterback Jeff Garcia's personal barbed-wire fence in the first game. Gragg displayed surprising quickness for a man 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds against the 6-5, 275-pound Strahan, holding him to four tackles and no sacks.
And Gragg largely did it on his own. In 29 pass sets, Gragg was helped with Strahan only 11 times.
The rest of the time he went man-to-man. Strahan did hit Garcia twice in the pocket after he unleashed passes, and once when Garcia scampered down the field. But other that, Strahan didn't get close enough to know what kind of cologne Garcia was wearing.
Sometimes, the double-teams worked against Gragg. When helped out by guard Ron Stone on Strahan in the second quarter, Gragg was called for holding -- his only penalty of the game. In the second half, fullback Fred Beasley came down to help, and Strahan split the double-team and leveled Garcia just after he threw.
Nevertheless, Gragg's mostly solo performance was his finest moment as a 49er, and he was utterly exhausted afterward. A large friendly sort with a booming voice, he was reduced to whispering after the game.
Even though this is the playoffs, Gragg might not find facing Strahan as enervating. "I think I'm over the first-game jitters," Gragg said.
What the 49ers might fear more than Strahan's pass rush is his ability to stop the run. He is the rare defensive end equally adept at both.
Knowing this, the 49ers ran in the vicinity of Strahan's left-defensive-end spot four times. Twice the All-Pro made tackles and one other time he plugged the running lane. In all, the 49ers gained 10 yards on four carries running to the Giants' left side.
Running to the Giants' right, the 49ers picked up 90 yards on 15 carries, an average of 6 yards per carry. Interesting, because the 49ers usually run to their right behind Gragg and 325-pound fellow ex-Giant Stone.
"He's good at the point of attack," coach Steve Mariucci said of Strahan. "He's strong, he's smart, he's been around the block."
Players in Strahan's position often ignore the drudgery of run defense when they become superstar pass rushers. It's like the home run hitter who scoffs at stealing a base or laying down a bunt. Not Strahan.
"It's rare when you have a guy that talented and athletic, who's also willing to work hard," Gragg said.
In fact it was Strahan's hard work that worked in Gragg's favor.
"I didn't know if my familiarity with him would benefit me in the game," Gragg said. "What I realized is he gave me his all in practice. There were no surprises."
Strahan could well be a different player Sunday. He dominated in the playoffs during the Giants' Super Bowl run two years ago, and players say the speed of the game increases in the postseason.
But Gragg will be ready for that too. The son of a clothing store owner in tiny Silverton, Ore., Gragg has gone through life dotting his "i's" and crossing his "t's".
"It's the playoffs," Gragg said. "You take extra notes, you watch extra film, and you go to bed early."
And at the end of game day, you stand before your opponent, knuckles bloodied, reeking of sweat and grass, and you shake hands -- win or lose.
NOTES: Stone, who is listed as questionable with an ankle sprain, engaged in limited practice Friday. Cornerback Jason Webster, also questionable with a sprained ankle, chucked his crutches and protective boot, giving coaches a glimmer of hope he could play Sunday. Webster will still be a game-time decision. . . . With kickoff slated for 1:45 p.m., Candlestick's parking lot gates will not open until 11:30.
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