Former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo used to say that you had to keep 22 eyes on number 36. Spagnuolo was of course referring to Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. During the 2009 offseason, after having watched Westbrook abuse Antonio Pierce in the passing game over the last few years, the Giants had seen enough. They decided to sign the much speedier Michael Boley away from Atlanta to help stop the one player, Westbrook, that dominated so much of the Giants’ time in game planning sessions.
In the book The Blind Side, Bill Walsh talked at length about how the 49ers juggled their personnel to specifically account for Lawrence Taylor in the 1981 playoffs:
When Lawrence Taylor joined the New York Giants under head coach Bill Parcells, I perceived the threat to our organization’s system very quickly. Taylor had the potential to shut down my pass-based offense. It was evident that its viability was directly linked to our ability to stop Lawrence Taylor from getting to Joe Montana’s body or into his mind.
Hoping that one of our running backs or a tight end weighing fifty pomuds less than the Giants’ blind-side backer could stop him was unrealistic. Additionally, my system used the tight end and running backs as receivers. Tying them downto block would greatly diminish the potential of our pass-based offense.
A solution was imperative but not evident. The most likely candidate to take on the burden was our left tackle, Dan Audick, who was the closest to the area Taylor would come stampeding through on his way to Montana. Unfortunately, Dan was no match for Taylor – he was shorter, not as strong or quick, and unlikely to do much damage. I decided to make a bold move – in reality, a counter-move to L.T. and the damage he could inflict.
I decided to make our left guard, John Ayers, playing next to the center, the designated defensive player who would sto Lawrence Taylor. Immediately after the snap he would check to see if anyone was attacking over center and then step back and to his left in preparation for a serious collision.
John Ayers was bigger and stronger (6 feet 5 inches, 270 pounds) but not quicker than Taylor. Importantly, John seemed to have a low center of gravity, which made it very difficult to knock him off his feet or push him around. He was a formidable presense.
I put John under the tutelage of Bobb McKittrick, our extremely talented offensive lin coach, who reconfigured our assignments in preparation for an NFC playoff game at Candlestick Park against the New York Giants and Lawrence Taylor. It would be the sumo wrestler (John Ayers) trying to stop the rampage of Brahma bull (Lawrence Taylor).
And it worked.
At first Lawrence didn’t even know what had hit him. Boom! When he realized that he couldn’t move John Ayers around at will, he even tried attacking from the other side to avoid out creatively utilized left guard. But now Joe Montana could see him coming and react accordingly. The blind side threat was neutralized.
It’s no secret that coaches and general managers around the NFL shape their personnel to account for specific teams.
In the NFC Championship Game last season, Alex Smith targeted wide receivers nine times. He completed just one of those passes, to Michael Crabtree, for a whopping three yards. Near the end of regulation, the Niners and Giants traded 3-and-outs like rapid fire, burning almost no time off the clock. The Niners’ defense repeatedly gave Alex Smith a chance to move the football into FG range, but here’s what Smith was able to do with those opportunities:
In the Giants-Niners matchup this season, Alex Smith had a rough day. He threw three interceptions and did not handle the Giants pass rush very well. One of those interceptions was highlighted here, on a play in which Alex Smith was outsmarted by Antrel Rolle. Not only was that pass a bad read, but it was also a limp-wristed lollipop. More interestingly from that game, however, was Colin Kaepernick’s first real, meaningful action of the season. Throughout the game, head coach Jim Harbaugh mixed Kaepernick in, giving him 7 pass attempts against the Giants, which is noteworthy in and of itself.
The one pass attempt that was the most eye-opening, however, was a play at the end of the first half. The Niners had just blocked a Lawrence Tynes FG attempt, and the Niners had the ball on their own 30 with 11 seconds left in the first half. Surprisingly (at the time), Harbaugh sent out Kaepernick instead of Smith. Kaepernick dropped back, and fired:
Laser. The ball got to Mario Manningham so quickly that no Giants defenders got anywhere close to defending the pass:
The velocity on that pass compared to what Alex Smith is capable of was night and day. David Akers would wind up missing the long FG attempt to close the half, but that throw had to open some eyes.
The Niners probably think they can score on teams like the Falcons and Packers, regardless of who plays QB. If there were 5 teams identical to the Packers or Falcons heading into the playoffs, I don’t think we would have seen the Niners make that switch. Now, to be clear, nobody is making the claim that the Giants’ defense this year is some kind of dominant force. In fact, it’s 22nd in the league in yards allowed, 9th in points. But there’s just something about the Giants’ defense that works against the Niners, and more specifically Alex Smith. My bet is that the Niners were tired of seeing the same results against the Giants, and were operating under the assumption that there was a good chance they’d be seeing them at some point during the playoffs.