49ers must keep Smith from spending time on ground
The 49ers look to get back on the winning track Sunday and continue their dominance over the New York Jets when they meet in a key inter-conference battle of 2-1 teams at MetLife Stadium. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the 49ers need to do to beat New York for the seventh time in their last eight meetings against the Jets.
Start up the running game and stick with it
The 49ers made a big mistake during last week’s upset loss at Minnesota when they quickly went away from the bread-and-butter of their offense – Frank Gore and the team’s power rushing attack – after falling behind early. Gore was productive as usual when he touched the football, but he only carried it a season-low 12 times for 63 yards, and the Niners never could get in the consistent offensive rhythm that characterized their first two games. The Niners need to get that rhythm going with Gore from the start, and they need to stick with it no matter which way the scoreboard trends against a Jets defense that ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 148.7 yards per game and 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. Gore comes in with 264 yards rushing through three games and a fat 5.9 average per carry – a testament that he should get plenty of carries from the get-go against this Jets defense. The 49ers lead the NFL with 57.3 percent of their first down plays going for four yards or more – several of those plays being handoffs to Gore – so that lets you know what San Francisco’s approach should be this week.
Never allow Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow QB combo to get in the flow
It’s uncertain how often the 49ers will see Tebow behind center Sunday, since the Jets have been hesitant to use their heralded newcomer at quarterback, even in Wildcat formations. Tebow has yet to throw a pass this season, and you’ve got to believe the Jets are going to give him that chance soon, particularly with Sanchez struggling to find any kind of consistency or rhythm. Sanchez enters this game with a 50.5 completion percentage that ranks as the worst of any starter in the NFL. The Niners must continue to keep Sanchez from getting into any kind of comfort zone or groove by pressuring him and confusing him with coverage schemes. The Niners failed to do that against a young quarterback last week, and Christian Ponder made them pay for it in the upset loss to the Vikings. The Niners need to stuff any kind of Tebow dimension that the Jets may present, and keep New York’s regular starter as ordinary – or worse – as Sanchez has been so far this season.
Better protection for Alex Smith
The 49ers’ propensity this season for allowing too much heat on their quarterback finally became a problem last week as Smith was sacked three more times and hit on several other occasions, and he finally appeared to crack a bit under the pressure with two pivotal fourth-quarter turnovers, including an interception that ended his franchise-record string of 249 passes without a pick. Even while being sacked 10 times and hit at least twice as often during the first three weeks, Smith was able to find success in the passing game with high accuracy and move the offense before running into some struggles against the Vikings, when the San Francisco offense was limited to season-low totals of 280 net yards and 204 passing yards from Smith. The Jets have had problems getting to opposing quarterbacks, recording just three sacks in their first three games. If the 49ers can’t reduce the sacks and hits that Smith absorbs this week, it will indicate a real problem instead of just a temporary trend and could allow the Jets to stymie San Francisco’s offense the way the Vikings did.
Force the Jets to the air by stuffing run game
This is the basic formula for success for San Francisco’s defense, but with the Jets having hit-or-miss success through the air so far this season, it becomes a basic that the 49ers need to get back to this week to gain control of the game early. Leading rusher Shonn Greene has just 157 yards on the ground in three games, and he’s averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. Bilal Powell (88 yards on 22 carries) and Tebow (38 on 7) have been New York’s only other rushing threats as the Jets have managed to start 2-1 despite a marginal running game. The Niners need to make this marginal running game practically nonexistent as they did in the season opener against Green Bay, when the Packers rushed for just 45 yards – with 27 of them coming on scrambles from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Win the turnover battle
This was always a key for the 49ers last year, and one which they were successful on consistently while leading the NFL with an amazing plus-28 turnover differential. After last week’s debacle in Minnesota – when the Niners lost three fourth-quarter turnovers to stymie any hopes for a comeback – there is more urgency for San Francisco to get back to winning the turnover battle to increase its chances of winning on the scoreboard. After losing the turnover battle for the first time this season last week, the Niners are now even in turnover/takeaway differential this season while the Jets are ahead of them with a plus-2 differential. New York’s opportunistic defense has had success forcing six turnovers so far this year, so the Niners have to protect the football and get back to taking it away from opponents like they did last season to gain an edge here.
Exploit the loss of Darrelle Revis and challenge Jets with the deep ball
The Jets lost their best player last week, star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was a player their defensive approach was built around. Revis is so good that he regularly wins man-to-man matchups on his side of the field, giving the Jets a true shutdown corner. Antonio Cromartie will assume the role as New York’s No. 1 cornerback and youngster Kyle Wilson will take Revis’ place in the starting lineup. Despite Cromartie’s ability, the net result is a huge loss for the Jets and a better opportunity for the 49ers to exploit New York’s secondary. The Jets lost 27-10 in Pittsburgh on Sept. 16 when Revis sat out with a concussion and they gave up 265 passing yards. New York allowed fewer than 200 yards in each of its two wins with Revis before he was hurt last week. The Niners – who attempted to throw long very few times during the first three weeks – need to exploit the loss of Revis and also get their deep passing game going against a secondary that could be reeling from the loss of the star performer that has carried that unit in recent seasons.
Superiority on special teams
San Francisco’s special teams units have had their moments this season, but also have had a few hiccups and have not been consistently superior to the competition as they were throughout much of last season, which became a huge factor in San Francisco’s overall success. This becomes more of a factor this week because New York special teams also are strong and also play a significant factor in the team’s weekly success. Joe McKnight made the Pro Bowl last year after leading the NFL with a 29.8-yard average returning kickoffs, and punt returner Jeremy Kerley has a 57-yard runback for a touchdown this season. Punter Robert Malone has been strong in helping the Jets dominate the battle for field position much like the Niners did last year, and kicker Nick Folk has connected on all five of his field-goal attempts so far this year. This is one time that San Francisco’s opposition, on paper, isn’t clearly out-classed on special teams. The Niners need to make things turn out different on the field to re-establish their dominance on these units.