Alex Smith

49ers’ offensive x-factor should sound familiar to the Giants

The San Francisco 49ers lost Frank Gore to a knee injury early on in the Niners’ 27-20 victory over the New York Giants on Nov. 13. That was after New York stacked the box and held Gore to zero yards on 6 carries, meaning the Giants did what they set out to do: neutralize Gore and force the 49ers to run their offense through Alex Smith.

One couldn’t blame the Giants for choosing such a strategy. Heading in, Gore had run for 100+ yards in each of the 49ers’ previous five games, all wins. Gore has failed to break the 100-yard barrier since, and has averaged over 4 yards per carry in only two games:

12/11 @ Arizona: 10 carries, 72 yards

1/14 vs. New Orleans: 13 carries, 89 yards

Gore also caught 7 passes for 38 yards against the Saints (Gore’s previous 10 games: 5 receptions for 43 yards), including a 6-yard catch during the last drive that put the Niners at the Saints’ 14-yard-line, two plays before Vernon Davis’ game-winning TD reception.

In the NFC Championship Game, the Giants will probably once again focus the majority of their attention on Gore.

One receiver leaves, another returns?

It sounds like Ted Ginn’s knee injury will hold him out of action against New York, while Delanie Walker is practicing and looks as if he may come back. Walker was the leading receiver when the 49ers beat the Giants (7 targets, 6 catches and 69 yards), but it seems foolish to expect Walker to step back in and lead the way … though if he returns it will certainly give the team an emotional boost, along with another run blocker and target for Smith.

Vernon Davis should get a little extra attention from the Giants after going off for 180 yards and 2 TD on Saturday (Davis also had that catch, run and leap into the end zone against the Giants back in November). Perhaps Michael Crabtree could be a potential breakout candidate, according to Niners Nation. While Crabtree would love to forget dropping 2 passes and managing only 25 yards receiving on Saturday, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell makes it rain on Crabtree’s potential redemption parade:

Crabtree is likely to draw the attention of the superb Giants cornerback Corey Webster in the NFC Championship Game, and if Ted Ginn can’t play because of his knee injury, Crabtree will need to get open for the Niners to have much of a passing attack.

To recap: the Giants will worry about Gore and Vernon, Crabtree’s facing their best cover guy, Ginn’s hurt and Brett Swain is lucky to have a job (the Niners obviously trust Swain, but he missed an opportunity when he didn’t catch that long pass down the right sideline on Saturday). Besides Kyle Williams, who has 3 receptions for 17 yards in his last three games and probably has the task of catching kicks and punts in the rain to worry about, where can the 49ers turn?

Kendall Hunter hasn’t scored since that touchdown on Nov. 13, but he’s steadily improving as a runner (Hunter rushed for 149 yards on 28 carries in the 49ers’ last two regular season games) and has caught at least one pass in nine straight games. He’ll probably also serve as a kick returner if Ginn indeed sits.

Will Hunter be the back who surprisingly catches 7 balls on Sunday? Probably not, but unless Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Geep Chryst decide to forego small-ball entirely and throw passes to Joe Staley and Isaac Sopoaga all afternoon, Hunter may see more targets from Smith than he has all season. With Hunter’s speed, that very well could lead to his first touchdown since the last time these teams faced.


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