(Note: Gore is questionable with an ankle injury)
Anyone who has watched the 2011 NFC West Champs (Yeah, it's just about official), this year knows that Frank Gore makes their offense go. Heck, anyone who has watched the Niners over the past five years knows that Gore is the key to their offense. Gore is having another fantastic year, with 782 yards, five touchdowns and an excellent 4.9 yards per carry.
The former Miami Hurricane is the biggest reason the 49ers have the sixth best run game in the NFL (137.6 yards per game), but his success has a trickle-down effect. With defenses having to focus most of their attention on the running game, Alex Smith is having his best season yet: 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 64.1 completion %, and a 97.3 QB rating. None of those numbers are typos.
If the Giants can slow Gore and the Niners' run game down, more of the offensive pressure will fall on Smith's shoulders. Smith has made strides, but he's still a game-manager, and he cannot be counted on to carry an offense on his shoulders. Especially with the Giants' intense pass rush, if Gore can be wrapped up, Smith will falter.
2. Patrick Willis
While Gore is the highest profile player on the team, if I could pick any 49er to build my team around, I would choose Patrick Willis. It's not even close.
It's not often you come across a 26-year old who has already had four seasons of 100 or more tackles, but that is the case with Willis, who averages over nine total tackles per game. Matt Williamson of ESPN.com recently ranked Willis as the ninth best player in the NFL, and it's hard to argue with the results that the youngster has put up, ever since his 174-tackle, defensive-rookie-of-the-year 2007 season.
The 4-time pro bowler is as versatile as they come, as he can cover athletic tight ends, run down and tackle any running back, blitz the quarterback and even pick off a pass every now and then. He is one of the most under-appreciated superstars in the game today, and a surefire hall-of-famer if he stays healthy.
3. Vernon Davis
Despite their passing game ranking 30th overall (173.5 yards per game), Alex Smith actually has a handful of dangerous weapons to throw to. Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards are an above-average duo at wide receiver, and Frank Gore can be an effective receiver out of the backfield (although he only has 13 receptions this year, he has averaged 58 catches per 16 games played over the previous five seasons).
But after the way Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez torched the Giants for a combined 12 receptions, 136 yards and two touchdowns last week, I would be concerned about facing big, athletic tight ends. That's exactly what the 49ers have in Vernon Davis.
Davis tied the NFL touchdown record for tight ends in 2009 with 13, and has topped 900 yards in each of the past two seasons. Although he is not on pace to reach those numbers this season, he is still a dangerous intermediate and deep threat because of his sub-4.4 speed, and is one of the toughest tight ends to tackle in the open field. Whereas Corey Webster has shut down better receivers than Michael Crabtree, the Giants don't have anyone who can cover Davis one-on-one. If the Niners are smart, they will try to get Davis involved early and often.