The 49ers travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles this Sunday in a game that has all sorts of question marks for both teams. For the most part I think we can assume Michael Vick will play. It's not 100% guaranteed but as long as his swelling comes down he'll likely play. We'll know more this afternoon, tomorrow and Friday when the Eagles release their injury and practice participation reports.
In spite of all the question marks surrounding Michael Vick, whether he plays or not, the 49ers offense still has to deal with an Eagles secondary that continues to get tons of publicity in spite of some early struggles. The team's ability to sign Nnamdi Asomugha had the chatter at epic levels. Combining Nnamdi with Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie meant defenses would be forced to figure out some kind of alternative if they were going to pass against the Eagles.
While the New York Giants didn't exactly decimate the Eagles secondary, they did leave a bit of a mark. I re-watched the Giants-Eagles game in part because I wanted to see how Eli Manning was able to do what he did. Manning finished 16/23 for 254 yards and four touchdowns and wide receiver Victor Cruz hauled in three passes for 110 yards.
Upon further review, I won't say the New York Giants got lucky in their passing attack, but it was at least an intriguing set of circumstances surrounding their success. Victor Cruz had a 74-yard touchdown reception, a 28-yard touchdown reception and a short eight yard reception. The first touchdown reception saw Cruz lined up in the slot and running a little out pattern while the outside receiver ran a slant in. The cornerback (I believe Nnamdi) covered the outer receiver coming in, and Cruz's defender never really stuck with him. Cruz caught the ball and at least two or three blown tackles later he was in the end zone.
Cruz's second touchdown saw him go down to the front edge of the end zone and haul in a pass in front of Nnamdi. Nnamdi played off Cruz because he had a safety coming over to help defend Cruz. However, Cruz made a phenomenal catch in front of Nnamdi that was hard to cover. It was just "one of those plays." Nnamdi played it right based on the defensive scheme, but Cruz also played off the defense just right and did what he had to do to haul in the pass.
Aside from those two big catches, much of Eli Manning's success the rest of the game was due to big performances from Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Not only did the Giants rushing attack have some success, but both running backs had big performances in the passing game. I only noticed one screen pass. The other six running back receptions were a mix of shovel passes, one of the backs split out wide, or just some basic dump-off passes.
The question then is how can the 49ers battle the Eagles secondary this Sunday. The running game will need to find some level of success, whether it be Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter. It looks like the backs can build some success going with off tackle and sweep runs. The Eagles use a front nine coverage that appears to leave some holes open, but the holes close up very quickly in part due to the athleticism of the front seven. It looks like the Eagles will attempt to lay some traps to convince the 49ers to try and run inside. Let's hope the 49ers don't fall for that.
The 49ers will also need to figure out which of the two backs works best coming out of the backfield. Hunter had a nice catch that he turned into a first down and Gore has been one of the team's more prominent receivers in recent years.
Against that secondary, the best path to success appears to be the short passing game the 49ers seem to be developing. The Giants found a great deal of success with either short passes to the running backs or quick little passes on tight end and wide receiver out patterns. The 49ers might struggle to match the Giants rushing attack, which would mean a greater reliance on the pass.
The Giants did not pass the ball a whole ton, but when they did, it often involved passes that took advantage of any space they could create with the Eagles secondary. Even when the wide receivers were getting involved on shorter passes, it usually involved comeback routes that bought a little space.
The Eagles had a lot of problems in particular when it came to tackling players. Victor Cruz broke his first big touchdown thanks to poor tackling, and the Eagles corners struggled with their tackling even after that. My thought on this is that the 49ers need to further mix in quick slants to wide receivers, particularly Michael Crabtree who can be pretty spectacular after the catch in the right situation.
However, Vernon Davis could be a key in this regard. If the 49ers can work the ball into his hands quickly, his size and speed could be the cure for this Eagles secondary. Nnamdi and Samuel might be able to keep up with him in terms of speed, but they simply cannot handle his kind of size. The 49ers need to take advantage of that mismatch.
The 49ers receivers likely won't find much success trying to go step for step with the Eagles cornerbacks. They might win a matchup here or there, but over the course of four quarters I think the Eagles could win that battle. However, this game provides a chance to use the 49ers receivers and tight end talents to force the Eagles into playing the 49ers kind of game.
Whether it be Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, or Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter catching passes out of the backfield, there are mismatches to be had. As we've found out through three weeks, it will come down to the offensive game-plan. I just hope Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh recognize this and game-plan appropriately.