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Looking Ahead to the Detroit Lions' Most Important Game of 2012

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Looking Ahead to the Detroit Lions' Most Important Game of 2012
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With the offseason rolling (or stumbling or speeding, depending on the news report) along the way it has been, pretty much every second of every early game, both preseason and regular season, will be under minute observation by fans and media.

If they are paying attention, they'll know that one early game will set the tone for the Detroit Lions' whole season.

No, not the St. Louis Rams.

Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers is the most critical game of the season.

As I've written before, the Lions have some tough road games this season. It's critical that they set the tone early on the road. The San Francisco 49ers are an incredibly tough defense, and while the offense isn't quite as good as Alex Smith thinks, it plays well enough to be a danger.

Going into San Francisco isn't as easy a trip as it once was, and last year, the Lions lost to this same Niners team—at home.

The Lions jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter off of a field goal and a Matt Stafford touchdown to tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

After that, it was all 49ers. While the offense was able to move down the field frequently, it was unable to get close enough to score points on a regular basis. 

The Niners did a fantastic job of keeping Calvin Johnson out of the end zone, forcing Stafford to spread the ball around to several players, often on shorter routes. Nate Burleson and Titus Young were largely contained, though Burleson had a short touchdown late.

Burleson was targeted 10 times but just couldn't overcome the coverage. Young was only targeted five times, catching just one ball.

The Lions and Stafford have to do a better job of getting these two guys, in particular, the ball.

Part of the problem, and the reason why Stafford didn't go long a ton and didn't have much success when he did, was that the 49ers had good coverage from their linebackers, which allowed their safeties to hang back and support whichever corner needed it.

The 49ers did a great job covering short with LBs, leaving the safeties to assist over the top (footage courtesy of Fox).

The safety help over the top made it very difficult to complete passes long, so Stafford dumped a lot of passes short, where they would be complete but instantly stopped by the San Francisco linebackers.

This is also why Jahvid Best had so many receptions, and Pettigrew ended up with eight catches.

The Lions can counter this in two ways. One, run the ball more effectively. If Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best can gain yards on the ground, the 49ers will have to have their linebackers focus on stopping the run, which will open up the middle of the field.

The safeties will then have to cover some of that space, putting at least one of Johnson, Burleson and Young in straight man coverage.

Of course, if they have to pick their poison, a defense will double Johnson, which means making them pay with Burleson or Young.

The other thing the Lions have to do is stop the run.

Alex Smith will dink and dunk his way down the field, but the true force in this offense will always be Frank Gore, who blew the Lions defense up to the tune of 141 yards and a touchdown.

Stop the run, and you make things very hard on this offense.

The 49ers took advantage of the Lions' tendency to play with a lot of guys up on the line and were able to have their offensive line block in such a way that allowed Gore multiple choices and, in turn, made the front seven (in some cases, front eight or nine) hesitate.

The offensive line opened a great lane (gold lines) for Gore but also gave him two potential directions to go in (footage courtesy of Fox).
The 49ers boxed out every Lion on the line perfectly and made the Lions choose which hole to guard, hesitating a split second as they did, allowing Gore to dictate direction (footage courtesy of Fox).

If you hesitate against Gore, you've lost.

Gore was able to break off several big runs in part because the front seven was unable to plug all the holes and gaps San Francisco created, as well as because there was little support in the secondary to catch Gore if he broke through to the second level.

Playing their safeties and corners up cost the Lions a few big gains.

The Lions will come into their game against the 49ers this year with a healthy backfield and some new tools on defense.

A win on the road early in the season is important to set the tone for trips that include some tough venues like Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, along with the usual suspects in Soldier Field, Lambeau and the Metrodome.

After the San Francisco game, the Lions have five out of the next seven games on the road. So out of the first nine games, six are on the road.

That's a long road trip. The Lions cannot afford to lose too many games on it.

They have to get it off on the right foot—and that's with a win in the City by the Bay.

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