The 49ers (2-0) need to protect Brock Purdy from blitzes and pin down his New York Giants counterpart Daniel Jones in tonight’s home opener
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The new grass is in place, the 49ers are off to a 2-0 start, and their 10th season at Levi’s Stadium begins in prime time.
“Whoooo has it better than us?”
Sorry, but that was then-coach Jim Harbaugh’s rallying cry when the 49ers relocated from Candlestick Park to their $1.2 billion mansion atop a Great America parking lot a decade ago.
Today’s game between the 49ers and the New York Giants kicks off at 5:15 p.m. (Prime Video; KTVU Ch. 2).
Do you know how many times the 49ers faithful have come to this game on a Thursday night? Once, for a rout of the then-Oakland Raiders in 2018. Two years later, when COVID guidelines prohibited fans from attending games, the 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers.
Do you remember the first Thursday night game at Levi’s Stadium? Thanksgiving night, 2014, a 17-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, followed by a Tweet from CEO Jed York apologizing for how “this performance wasn’t acceptable.”
This season is going much better, and this game kicks off a three-game homestand. Here’s how the 49ers can triumph:
- ‘A 7-SECOND FIGHT’
Remember when Brock Purdy took over for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo and was unfazed by the Miami Dolphins’ blitz-heavy baptism? More pressure is coming from the Giants, who blitzed 44.7 percent of the time under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale last season.
“They’re combative. “They blitz hard,” Christian McCaffrey, the running back, said. “They’re always putting some sort of pressure on.”
As an every-down back, McCaffrey must help protect Brock Purdy from an incoming linebacker or defensive back. Communication is only one aspect of blitz pickups. Bobby Turner, the running back coach, drilled a great description of what happens next.
“Bobby says it best: it’s a 7-second fight, whether it’s a quick (pass) or not,” McCaffrey explained. “There’s a lot of technique involved, but there’s also a lot of attitude and intent.” You must stay on your man for 7 seconds. It doesn’t always work, but that’s the mindset I have.”
In order to earn a score, a bull rider must last eight seconds on a bull. Purdy, by the way, is throwing passes in 2.66 seconds, which is faster than his 2.84-second average last season.
- NFL RUSHING KING?
McCaffrey has an NFL-high 268 rushing yards this season, and he’d like to end it with not only his first rushing title, but the 49ers’ first since Joe “The Jet” Perry ran for 1,049 yards over 12 games (87.4 yards per game) in 1954.
“Absolutely. We can set up so much in this offense if we can run the ball well, and we have the guys to do it,” McCaffrey said.
His body “feels really good” despite playing all 57 snaps on Los Angeles’ synthetic grass on Sunday. Yes, a running back playing 100 percent of the reps is unusual, especially when backed up by a healthy Elijah Mitchell and Jordan Mason. McCaffrey, on the other hand, explained that the “flow” of Sunday’s game gave him plenty of time to rest between series. None of the 49ers’ final nine possessions lasted more than four minutes. The Rams offense dominated the time of possession battle, winning 33:11 to 26:49.
“There will be times when Mitchell gets four or five carries in a row on multiple drives because he’s performing well and I’ll be out.” “It’s situational,” McCaffrey explained. “I don’t believe there was ever a plan for one of us to get all the carries or not. That’s just how games go sometimes.”
- ZONE-READ REACTIONS
Daniel Jones had an unprecedented second-half output in Sunday’s 21-point win over Arizona. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 250 yards (259), run for 50 yards (58), throw multiple touchdown passes (two), run for a touchdown, and not turn the ball over.
That running aspect is the most intimidating for the 49ers, who have historically struggled against running quarterbacks due to their aggressive pass rusher mentality. Jones’ rushing ability is even more important for the Giants following the ankle injury to Saquon Barkley on Sunday.
“First and foremost, we have to keep our rush lanes open,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “Sometimes our guys, and the position itself, is just so aggressive, and all of a sudden, you’re trying to tell those guys to slow down, and that’s not what they do naturally.”
The goal is to pin Jones in the pocket, clog escape routes, cover receivers, sack him, force a fumble, and live happily ever after. “He’ll try to get out any chance he gets,” Nick Bosa, who is looking for his first sack of the season, said. “So we’ll just try to close in on him, be careful in our rush lanes, and we could have a good day.”
The Giants will be without not only Barkley, but also left tackle Andrew Thomas, left guard Ben Bredeson, and outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari.
- TIGHT END TROUBLE
Six months ago, the Giants surprisingly acquired Darren Waller from the Raiders, who had just awarded him a contract extension worth more per year ($17 million) than the 49ers’ George Kittle ($15 million).
Waller gave Jones and the Giants a No. 1 target, and he delivered (six catches, 76 yards) on Sunday.
“The size and speed are difficult to contain,” said linebacker Fred Warner. “It’s something we’ll have to be aware of and keep an eye on because if he gets going, things could get ugly fast.”
Warner knows this from last season’s Week 18 overtime victory in Las Vegas. Not only did Waller’s first of three catches (72 yards) put the Raiders up 7-0, but he also drew a pass-interference penalty on Warner in the end zone, setting up a game-tying touchdown with a minute left in regulation.
Kittle, on the other hand, has only three catches (19 yards in Week 1 and 30 yards in Week 2) while also having to help block. This pattern could continue to counter the Giants’ blitzes. Alternatively, he could be Purdy’s quick-pass option if Brandon Aiyuk (shoulder) is limited or unable to play.
- DON’T OVERLOOK DEFENSE
After facing two former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald to start the season, the 49ers will face a Giants defense that is still looking for its first sack and turnover of the season. No, these aren’t your Lawrence Taylor defenders, but a Jim Burt or Leonard Marshalls-style hit (see: Montana, Joe) is all it takes to remind the 49ers of the consequences.
“They’ve got as good of inside players here, too,” Shanahan said. “Dexter Lawrence, this is our first real look at him, but based on the last 24 hours, he’s every bit as good as advertised.” Leonard Williams has always been a standout performer. Both of their edges are also strong. So they’ve got a great start. The last two weeks have been filled with similar challenges.”
Last season, the Giants were led by Dexter Lawrence (7 12 sacks), Ojulari (5 1/2 sacks), and Kayvon Thibodeaux (four), who finished fourth in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
The Giants will face a 49ers offense that has scored 30 points in both of its victories (30-7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and 30-23 against the Los Angeles Rams). Since Purdy took over for Garoppolo in that Dec. 4 win at Miami, the offense has averaged 32 points per game, including two playoff victories and the NFC Championship Game, in which Purdy was injured.
Purdy’s confidence has not been shaken by the three overthrows on Sunday. Here’s his enthralling account of the passing attack: “The excitement, the trust, it’s real; it’s part of this position, part of football.” When a guy breaks and is wide open, you can’t always throw. That is simply not how the league operates. Windows close quickly, so you must be alert. You have to anticipate guys and where they should be based on coverage and concept. So that’s something we’re working on and taking very seriously here. It’s part of our offense to be able to throw before guys break and stuff like that.”
With that, the games at Levi’s Stadium can resume.