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All-22: Breaking down the Giants' game-winning drive on the 49ers defense

It looked like the 49ers might steal their second win of the season in the Meadowlands before they snatched defeated from the jaws of victory. Where did things break down on that final drive?

When Phil Dawson tacked on the extra point following Carlos Hyde’s two-yard touchdown run with 1:49 to play, the San Francisco 49ers had a 94.8 percent probability of leaving the Meadowlands with an upset victory and some hope of righting the ship after three straight losses. Of course, that’s not what happened. Eric Mangini’s defense allowed Eli Manning & Co. to traverse 82 yards in 84 seconds to score the game-winning touchdown and send the 49ers to 1–4 on the season.

It wasn’t terribly surprising that the Giants faced such little resistance on their final drive. New York moved the ball into 49ers’ territory on 8-of–9 drives on the night, including a 66-yard drive in the final minute of the first half that made it all the way inside San Francisco’s 15-yard line. That drive ended when a Manning pass lofted up the right sideline for Odell Beckham Jr. was left hanging to the inside, giving Tramaine Brock an easy interception. How the Giants moved the ball downfield leading up to that moment, however, foreshadowed what was to come in the game’s final minutes.

During that first-half drive, Manning repeatedly attacked the heart of San Francisco’s defense for easy yardage in the middle of the field. Shane Vereen caught two passes for 16 yards out of the backfield. Tight end Will Tye added 32 yards on two more receptions. Together, Vereen and Tye accounted for nearly three-quarters of the yardage gained on the drive.

So when the Giants took over on their own 18-yard line in need of a touchdown and only 101 seconds to make it happen, it was no surprise Manning set his sights on the interior of San Francisco’s defense once again.

New York ran this exact same play on the first-half drive and Vereen beat NaVorro Bowman’s coverage for 12 yards. On this play, following an 11-yard scramble from Manning to begin the drive, Bowman and Jaquiski Tartt have flipped responsibilities but the outcome was unchanged. Tartt’s path is altered by Larry Donnell’s drag route, which leaves him trailing Vereen as he leaves the backfield. Manning delivers the ball in a way that takes Vereen upfield, and he picks up 11 yards before Tartt can chase him down.

After a back-shoulder throw to Myles White down the right sideline — the Giants began this drive without the services of Beckham or Rueben Randle — fell incomplete, Manning and Vereen went back to work in the middle.

The 49ers are in man coverage again and Tartt is matched up with Vereen. Tartt overcommits to the outside, leaving Vereen wide open on the Texas route over the middle. Manning steps up in the pocket and gets the ball out just before Eli Harold and Aaron Lynch can converge off the edge. Vereen makes the easy catch for a gain of 16 yards, moving the ball into 49ers’ territory with 50 seconds to play.

Following a Giants timeout, the 49ers got their chance to end the game, but couldn’t take advantage.

Really, the 49ers were simultaneously lucky and unlucky on this play. Brock failing to get his arms under the football and secure the game-deciding interception is a tough pill to swallow for 49ers fans. But they were also lucky Manning opted to heave the ball into double coverage rather than to a wide open Will Tye, who had roasted Bowman on the out-and-up. It was a microcosm of the 49ers’ day defensively: the pressure can’t quite get home and the secondary can’t make Manning pay for a poorly thrown ball. That gave the Giants a second chance and Manning would take full advantage.

Two plays later, the Giants went back to Vereen out of the backfield. Keith Reaser was inserted in the linebacker spot next to Tartt after Bowman let Tye get behind him, and it’s Reaser who gets the assignment on Vereen here. Reaser barely stands a chance, as a beautifully executed screen pass leaves Reaser in a swath of open space and center Weston Richburg between him and Vereen. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for Reaser and Vereen runs unmolested through the 49ers’ secondary for a gain of 24 yards.

After Kenneth Acker was flagged for pass interference on Beckham, the Giants had the ball at the 12-yard line with 26 seconds to go — prime position to take multiple shots into the end zone for the go-ahead score. As it turned out, they would only need one.

With out-breaking routes from Vereen out of the backfield and Dwayne Harris in the opposite slot, the Giants prevent safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea from overplaying the middle of the field. As a result, Bowman is isolated in man coverage on Larry Donnell up the seam. It’s hard to ask much more from Bowman than this:

Bowman is in perfect position, turns to locate the ball, and challenges Donnell at the catch point. Donnell just makes a phenomenal catch in a critical moment. And that was really what this final drive, and much of the game, came down to: the better team made more plays.

It’s hard for me to pin this one on Mangini. He didn’t go hyper-conservative and allow Manning to pick apart soft zones all the way down the field. Instead, after relying heavily on zone coverage for much of the game, Mangini got more aggressive with his coverages. The 49ers moved their cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage and played tight man coverage on the Giants’ depleted wide receiver corps.

Ultimately, the 49ers defense simply had no answer for the Manning to Vereen hook-up. Bowman, Tartt, and Reaser all tried their hand at covering the shifty running back to no avail. Manning made accurate throws with Lynch repeatedly bearing down on him, and in rare situations when he was off target the 49ers couldn’t take advantage.

The middle of San Francisco’s defense is a major problem. Only the Jaguars have been worse on passes to the middle of the field through five weeks, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Bowman, though in excellent position on the Donnell touchdown, hasn’t been his old self in coverage. Next to Bowman, Tartt and Michael Wilhoite haven’t been any better, which makes it difficult for the 49ers to matchup with talented tight ends and running backs in man coverage. When the 49ers go zone, they have problems locating receivers and getting into passing lanes, something that popped up numerous times throughout the Giants game. And unless Mangini and the 49ers defense finds an answer quickly, opposing quarterbacks will continue to find success going after the middle of this defense.