San Francisco Chronicle

Back to basics
January 05, 2003
49ers prepare for hard-nosed Giants' attack

Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer

When the subject of today's wild-card game against the Giants was broached, safety John Keith's eyes sparkled.

"For me, this game is fun," said Keith, a 207-pound safety, who may be the hardest hitter on the team. "The Giants are a throwback team. It's mano-a-mano.

You throw the X's and O's out the window."

Since Giants coach Jim Fassel took over the play calling after the Giants' seventh game, New York has become the most basic team in the league.

Fassel retained offensive coordinator Sean Payton's desire to get the ball deep, but simplified the offense. Quarterback Kerry Collins has flourished in a scheme that cuts down on complicated multiple shifts.

Defensively, former 49ers secondary coach Johnnie Lynn has fashioned one of the most basic schemes in football as the Giants' defensive coordinator.

"They're the kind of team, they are like us, fundamentally sound," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "Yeah, they pull out a gimmick play once in a while, but they just try to win with their football. They block well, and they catch well, and the receivers run great routes, and Collins makes great decisions. It's kind of a classical football game."

On defense, if an offense trots out three receivers, the Giants counter with a fifth defensive back. If the offense goes with four receivers, the Giants respond with six defensive backs.

And in the three-receiver alignment, nickel back Jason Sehorn takes the wide receiver lined up in the slot, even if that receiver is Terrell Owens.

While much has been made of Fassel assuming the play calling from Payton, Mora contends the offense hasn't really changed much, and he admires their no- frills style.

"You have to admire that about those guys," Mora said. "And (Fassel) can (be basic) because they've got these weapons. Sometimes when you don't have the weapons you need you have to create stuff, but they've got the weapons."

Since the 49ers beat the Giants 16-13 in the season opener, New York has discovered offensive success by letting the players play.

Collins, once thought of as a first-round washout, has set single-season team records for completions (335) and passing yards (4,073). Collins is particularly tough against the 49ers, having thrown for more than 300 yards against them three times, the most against any team he has faced.

Amani Toomer, the former De La Salle High School wide receiver, has developed into the one of the league's best after catching 82 passes for 1,343 yards and eight scores.

When Collins gets tired of throwing to Toomer, he goes to sensational rookie Jeremy Shockey, who broke Mark Bavaro's team record of 66 receptions by a tight end with 74 receptions for 894 yards.

The brash former Miami Hurricane has been called a physical freak with his leaping ability, strength and, most of all, speed.

Add to the offensive mix running back Tiki Barber, who has emerged as a premier runner. Barber started the season with a tender hamstring and rushed for only 29 yards on 15 carries against the 49ers.

Mirroring the Giants' overall offensive development, Barber rushed for 203 yards on 32 carries in the season finale.

So what do the 49ers do to beat a talented team from the Paleolithic Era?

The 49ers should start with patience. The Giants have only allowed one touchdown in the first quarter all season.

While the Giants are basic, they can be unpredictable. In the season opener, they primarily kept both safeties back to shut down Owens. New York even moved linebackers into the passing lanes on Owens' side to cut down on the slant patterns.

Now that the 49ers have developed a running game since the opener, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said he would be surprised to see the Giants settle into the same soft-zone coverage.

"We'll show them we can run the ball," Knapp said. "You can't just play us in a soft-zone defense."

The defense the Giants used on opening day is usual for them. Typically, they like to bring either safety Omar Stoutmire or Shaun Williams up to stop the run.

The 49ers simply need to pick their spots and be balanced. The coaches may even want to turn the game over to quarterback Jeff Garcia, who could check to a pass if he notices the safety sneaking up against the run.

If the Giants do slap as many as three players on Owens, the 49ers will simply go elsewhere. Owens ran a route into the end zone drawing a cornerback and safety in the opener. It allowed running back Garrison Hearst to sneak out under the coverage, catch a short pass, and dart into the end zone for a 9- yard score.

Defensively, the 49ers will need to stop the four-headed -monster that is Collins, Barber, Toomer and Shockey.

Unlike the Giants, the 49ers' defense rarely gives the offense the same look twice. Consequently, strong safety Tony Parrish could cover Shockey as much as linebacker Julian Peterson.

It's probably impossible to cover Shockey, Toomer, and then Barber coming out of the backfield. It will be up to the coaches to mix coverages and make Collins go to second and third options. If that happens, the pass rush will need to pressure Collins.

All quarterbacks get rattled when hit, but Collins is particularly susceptible to pressure. In 2001, Collins fumbled 23 times and threw 16 interceptions.

To stop the Giants, the 49ers will probably have to win the turnover battle.

They will also need to frustrate the highly emotional Shockey and contain Toomer.

Offensively, Garcia needs to secure the ball, and the running game needs to work.

If the 49ers can do all of the above, the Giants will disappear, just like the dinosaurs.

NFC next weekend

-- The winner of today's game between the No. 4 seed 49ers and No. 5 New York Giants will play at No. 2 seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday or Sunday in a Divisional Playoff game.

-- The No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons, having defeated the No. 3 seed Green Bay Packers, will play at top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in a Divisional Playoff game Saturday or Sunday.

Mariucci playoff era

The 49ers will play their sixth playoff game since Steve Mariucci took over as head coach in 1997. Here's how they have fared:

Wild card: Packers 25, 49ers 15

Wild card: 49ers 30, Packers 27
Divisional: Falcons 20, 49ers 18

Divisional, 49ers 38, Vikings 22
NFC Championship, Packers 23, 49ers 10

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