There are no secrets between the 49ers and New York Giants these days.
As the two teams prepare for their third meeting in 11 months, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Eli Manning and the Giants: a robust offense. The 49ers and Giants split their two meetings last year, with New York winning the NFC Championship game, but that all goes out the window when the teams square off at Candlestick again on Sunday.
"We know 'em and they know us," Fangio said. "It's almost like you're playing a division opponent."
Manning and coach Tom Coughlin both joined Big Blue before the 2004 season and have put together two Super Bowl runs in their eight-plus seasons in New York. The quarterback has benefitted greatly from playing in the same offensive system during his whole NFL career, and when added to a cache of weapons it makes him one of the game's best.
Manning enters Sunday's contest ranking second in the league in passing yards (averaging 316 per game), while checking in at No. 9 on the league passer rating leaderboard (96.0). With talented tailback Ahmad Bradshaw and host of quality receivers at his disposal, Manning poses the latest challenge in what's been an early-season gauntlet of elite quarterbacks.
"No sense for them to change a successful formula," Fangio said. "They have a real good offense, starting with the talent level they have there. They have a real talented offense. Their receivers and backs as a group, along with that quarterback, is as talented as you'll see."
But Manning won't even be the highest-rated passer in the stadium on Sunday. Said distinction belongs to Alex Smith, who led the 49ers to a historic 45-3 win against the Buffalo Bills last week en route to becoming the NFL's top rated quarterback (108.7).
San Francisco posted a franchise-high 621 yards in Week 5, en route to becoming the first team in NFL history to gain at least 300 yards on the ground (311) and through the air (310) in the same game. While offensive coordinator Greg Roman earned much of the praise for the output – and deservedly so – he was quick to deflect it to his players.
"It all comes down to 11 guys executing on the play," Roman said. "I think that's what our football squad got out of that – just watching the film and seeing that it's really nothing supernatural taking place. It's just when everybody does their job consistently, wow, great things can happen."
Smith's rise to become one of the game's top quarterbacks under the watchful eyes of Roman and Jim Harbaugh has been well-documented, as he totes a 17-4 regular-season record since the beginning of the 2011. As he watches his signal-caller evolve in his second year in the offense, Roman said he sees a more efficient and effective player, while also crediting Smith's supporting cast.
"Mentally, physically and understanding the offense to where he's running it on the field and his comfort," Roman said of Smith's improvements in 2012. "Things are just clicking for him quickly."
But the Smith and 49ers will certainly be tested with the Giants' defensive line, which is one of the best groups in the game. From Jason Pierre-Paul to Justin Tuck to Osi Umenyiora, the New York defensive front is littered with stars.
"Really smart, savvy defense," Roman said. "They know how to win. Really starts with their defensive front – talented players, very smart and heady."
It's a good thing Smith has the protection of his offensive line. The quintet of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis has been a major strongpoint of the offense all year.
"They're grading out really high," Roman said. "We're always striving to get better, but we're making the kind of improvements that we would have hoped and certainly expect."
As good as the Giants pass rush is, the 49ers have a good one of their own. Whether it be in its base packages or with extra defensive backs, San Francisco has been able to create pressure on the quarterback throughout the season. And while All-Pro Justin Smith might not have any sacks to his credit through five games, Fangio is still pleased with his team's pass rush this season.
"I haven't felt during any of the games, like, damn where's our pass rush?" Fangio said. "Until I feel that, then we don't have a problem. Sacks are good, it's a number for fans and you guys to sink your teeth into, but it's not the only thing. Pressure is critical."
Receiver Victor Cruz will certainly demand a lot of attention on Sunday, but Fangio knows Manning has plenty of other options at his disposal. Receivers Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle, running backs Andre Brown and David Wilson and tight end Martellus Bennett have all had a hand in an offense that ranks second in points (30.4) and yards (429.2) per game.
"It's not just a one-guy operation," Fangio said. "You've got to be able to mix your coverages and guys are going to have some tough downs."