SANTA CLARA — The 49ers appear to have less talent than the New York Giants.
When they play each other Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers won’t have their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, or starting running back Jerick McKinnon. And the Giants will have their three best players — quarterback Eli Manning, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
But the 49ers will be the favorites. Oddsmakers give them a three-point advantage because the Giants are under-performing. Their record is 1-7. And their offense has scored just 18.8 points per game, despite all of its talent.
“The Giants have an incredible set of skill players,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained Friday. “Barkley is phenomenal. The tight end, Evan Engram, is really good. (Wide receiver Sterling) Shepard’s a really good player. Odell is obviously really good. So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us this week.”
Despite their record, the 49ers still must respect the Giants’ offense, even though it hasn’t produced.
Beckham Jr., 26, is the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL. He signed a five-year, $95 million contract extension with the Giants during the offseason. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler who gained more than 1,300 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons in the NFL.
Beckham Jr. broke his left ankle last season and missed 12 games. But he’s healthy now — the ankle doesn’t seem to bother him anymore. The past two weeks combined, he has caught 16 passes for 279 yards and one touchdown.
“I don’t see a hitch in his giddyup at all,” Saleh said. “He’s still a big problem for defenses.”
So is Barkley, the Giants’ running back.
They took him with the second pick in this year’s draft. Through eight games, he has gained 519 yards on the ground and 497 yards through the air. He’s on pace to gain 2,032 yards from scrimmage.
“(Barkley) is as hard of a guy to tackle as I’ve seen,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Whether that’s handing the ball off to him or throwing it to him, if that guy has the ball in his hands in space there’s not many people in the world who can get him down consistently. You’ve got to get him out of space and you need 11 guys swarming to him.”
Shanahan’s praise for Barkley was clinical and blunt.
Saleh’s praise for the rookie was full of passion and admiration.
“God,” Saleh gushed, “he is dynamic. He’s very deceptive because it doesn’t look like he is moving, but the son of a gun is moving. He’s got tremendous balance. He’s got great feet. He’s obviously used in the pass game. His yards per carry is sitting at 4.7, so he’s doing a really good job running the ball. I don’t want to put him in Barry Sanders’ world yet, but he’s got a chance.”
Meaning Barkley has a chance to become one of the greatest running backs of all time, like Sanders.
That’s how much talent Barkley has.
And yet, the Giants offense ranks 27th out of 32 teams in points scored. It seems broken. Their offensive line has allowed 31 sacks — tied for third most in the NFL. And Manning’s passer rating of 90.9 ranks 22nd among qualifying quarterbacks. He has thrown eight touchdown passes and six interceptions this season.