My lasting image of the NFC championship game is of San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith dropping back, feeling the rush, failing to find an open receiver, then panicking and fleeing the pocket or throwing the football wildly.
Even though the former University of Utah quarterback managed to complete two touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis, the New York Giants’ coverage of the 49ers’ wide receivers was critical in their 20-17 overtime victory. Smith and the 49ers’ offense had trouble sustaining drives all day, then settled for a tying field goal in the fourth quarter and never threatened to score again in regulation or in overtime.
Whether the 49ers’ struggles were more attributable to Smith just having a rough day or the Giants’ blanketing his receivers, that ultimately was the biggest story of the game — even beyond punt returner Kyle Williams’ two fumbles.
And the Giants’ improved secondary certainly impressed the New England Patriots, preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“You could see in that game they’re well-coached, they play within the system and they have great technique,” said Patriots receivers coach Chad O’Shea. “They did a great job versus the 49ers. I know a lot of people talk about the front [four], and the front is outstanding, but the secondary is very good.”
That was not always true this season — the Giants finished 27th in the NFL in total defense. But everything has come together in the last five games, including three rounds of the playoffs, during which the Giants have stopped quarterbacks Matt Ryan, of Atlanta, Aaron Rodgers, of Green Bay and Smith.
The Giants once stood 7-7 , and the secondary was largely blamed for the team’s failures. “The way we handled that situation, nobody pointed the finger, everybody just kept getting better and better — and the secondary did just that,” said cornerback Corey Webster. “We’re playing great ball right now.”
Smith and the 49ers would have to agree with that statement. Subtract those touchdown passes of 73 and 28 yards to Davis, and Smith was only 10-of-24 for 95 yards against the Giants after completing more than 60 percent of his passes in the regular season and shredding New Orleans’ secondary in the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff victory.
Most strikingly, only one of Smith’s 12 completions against New York went to a 49ers wide receiver, covering just 3 yards. The pass rush played a major role in Smith’s erratic performance, as he often hurried to get rid of the ball. The Giants also succeeded in rerouting his receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupting the offense’s timing.
“It’s nothing new,” said secondary coach Dave Merritt. “It’s what we all hope to do, and we’re starting to do it at the right time.”
Now comes Sunday’s test from quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots, who feature two tight ends and also have talented receivers, led by Wes Welker. Four years ago, the Giants held Brady’s offense to 14 points on their way to a championship. New England obviously will throw a lot more passes than the 26 attempts of the 49ers, relying on Brady to be sharp and effective against a secondary that includes Webster and Ross at cornerback and Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips at safety.
Those corners have the confidence that comes from shutting down the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree. “We’re competitors at a challenging position,” Webster said. “We go out every day like we’re the best and we work that way, prepare that way.”
Sunday, they will have to play that way, if the Giants expect to win another Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLVI
P Sunday at Indianapolis
New England vs. N.Y. Giants, 4:20 p.m.
TV • Ch. 5