Lions vs 49ers: 10 Keys to the Game for Detroit
Is it just me, or does this game suddenly have a hint of doom to it?
Last Sunday, the Lions squeaked out a last-second comeback victory against the St. Louis Rams, who finished last season 2-14.
By contrast, the 49ers dominated the Green Bay Packers—who were 15-1 last season and a Super Bowl favorite—from kickoff to final whistle, which is something few thought possible by anyone.
I'm not saying that the 49ers are a sub-.500 team, I'm just saying it's the first week of the season and overreactions look really silly in December.
Regardless, this is a game that will be a monumental challenge for the Lions this Sunday night. The 49ers have a fast, strong, mean defense, and an offense that appeared functional against the Packers (though objects viewed against the Packers' defense are often weaker than they appear).
I'm certainly not taking the step to say this is an unwinnable game for the Lions. Quite the opposite, it's a potential statement game. But the Lions are going to have to do a lot of things right to pull it out.
They can start with these ones.
Say No to WHAM!
What? Really now, how would you have illustrated the nature of a wham block better than this?
Seriously, though. Frank Gore ran all over the Lions last year in Week Six, including over 100 yards on two combined plays.
No big deal, right? Big plays happen sometimes.
Well, yeah, but these two plays were in fact the same play: runs right up the middle with a "Wham" block.
Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote a fantastic piece on the 49ers' use of the wham play after the game on Grantland, so if you want an in-depth look at the specifics of the play, check it out.
The gist of it the play is that the offensive line purposefully leaves the most dangerous defensive lineman unblocked (last year it was Ndamukong Suh), only to blindside him with a pulling tackle or tight end when he gets into the backfield.
Meanwhile, the interior lineman that would have been responsible for that blocking assignment can move into the second level, blocking linebackers and clearing even more space for the running back.
That play basically won the game for the 49ers last season, and it's safe to assume the Lions (and Suh) will be game-planning for it this week.
Of course, that's only half the problem...
...But Actually, Keep Frank Gore on the Inside
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As bad as the Lions were gashed by Frank Gore's interior runs last season, the Packers were gashed perhaps even worse when he bounced his runs outside.
In fact, Gore earned 72 rushing yards (of 112 total) outside the tackles in Green Bay, so if the Lions' plan is to overload the middle to force Gore outside... they should probably reconsider.
The Lions showed against St. Louis that they have improved their gap discipline, holding Steven Jackson to 53 yards on 21 carries. If that carries over to San Francisco, bottling run plays up the middle into Stephen Tulloch and whatever safeties happen to be playing should limit the damage.
If the damage can, in fact, be limited.
Make Alex Smith Beat You (And Then Pressure Him Immensely)
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This seems like a silly suggestion, considering how Smith looked like an NFL quarterback against the Packers and the Lions' secondary supposedly has all the fortitude of hot butter.
Smith might have found an ideal situation under Jim Harbaugh and a system he thrives in. But he didn't beat the Packers last week, and at no point was the game on the line with him under center.
When you game-plan for an opponent, you try to neutralize the opponents' greatest strengths. In doing so, you tend to give more opportunities the the weaknesses. Right now, Smith has to be considered one of the weaknesses (though that may be a relative designation).
That gets intensified if the Lions' pass rush steps up and has Smith running for his life all day. Decent quarterbacks tend to get pretty bad, pretty fast when under pressure.
Of course, if Smith steps up and proves that he's actually a team strength... well, then may the 49ers have mercy on the rest of the NFC.
Establish the Run
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I'm sorry, Mikel Le-who?
For all the doom and panic about the Lions' running game, and the health and effectiveness thereof, this seemed like an awfully effective unit, especially on the inside. It started with Kevin Smith, who around this time last year was watching the game from his couch.
Of course, it's one thing to have that kind of success against the Rams. It's another to run the ball effectively against the 49ers, who arguably field two of the top two linebackers in football in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.
Last year, the Lions were able to muster a total of 66 yards rushing against the 49ers, and that was with Jahvid Best healthy for most of it, and no Smith. For all the speed and explosiveness the Lions lose moving from Best to Smith, they gain toughness, vision and size, and those are qualities that might even be more valuable in this contest.
Control the Ball
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The Lions could have beaten the Rams by 20 points with no trouble whatsoever. They were mostly dominant and methodical on offense, and stout on defense with only 13 points allowed.
Instead, the Rams hung in and even led for most of the game, despite being out-gained by about 180 yards on offense.
The difference, of course, was a minus-three turnover margin. Stafford threw two bad passes that took points off the board, and one that put points on the board for the defense.
The Lions won't be able to get away with a performance like that against the 49ers' superior defense, and those turnovers are going to be even more difficult to avoid.
The 49ers' game plan will likely focus on ball control and time of possession in order to take the ball out of the hands of the Lions' explosive offense as much as possible. The last thing the Lions need to do is to play into the hands of that game plan by turning the ball over.
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The Lions don't really have any control over this, but it will still be a key to the game.
Chris Houston, Louis Delmas and Bill Bentley are all dealing with various injuries, and all have a chance to be back in action by Sunday night.
Of course, they also have a chance of missing this game, which presumably brings up Drayton Florence, Jacob Lacey and John Wendling for another week.
Those guys did an admirable job of containing the Rams' receivers, but that was a unit led by Danny Amendola. While the 49ers' passing game is not likely to be a league-leading unit, Alex Smith proved his ability to pick apart a beleaguered secondary last weekend.
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Last week there was repeated reference to the "Calvin Johnson effect."
I don't know who decided to coin that term, but it refers to the fact that Johnson will dominate a defense if covered like a normal human being, so opposing defenses have to scheme to take him out of the game.
That, of course, will not actually happen. The Rams, with what appears to be a top 10 secondary, tried to eliminate him, and Johnson still went over 100 yards receiving.
But regardless of what coverage gets rolled Johnson's way, Matthew Stafford needs to continue looking in his direction. Johnson's most productive catch was a 50-yard jump ball, and there isn't a cornerback in the league that can defend that when Megatron times it right.
If the plan is right, he cannot be stopped.
Keep the Top on the Defense (Contain Randy Moss)
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This may be a non issue.
But the fact is, he's an unknown. Moss could be a shell of his former self (which might still make him the 49ers' best receiver), or he might still have the ability to explode for an 80-yard touchdown.
In either case, the Lions need to be wary of Moss in this game, especially if the secondary can't get healthy. The last thing they need is to give Moss a "get well" game to get him back into the groove of dominating defenses on a weekly basis.
Keep the Penalties under Control
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This guy pretty much sums up the average replacement official's performance in Week 1.
It may not have been the bloodbath it was billed to be, and I would go so far as to say the officials in the Lions vs. Rams game performed relatively well. But around the league, there were missed spots, two-minute warnings called at the wrong time, extra timeouts granted and a variety of other issues.
There were problems, is what I'm saying, and a portion of that has been in the enforcement of penalties. The Lions, luckily, were able to stay out of that watchful eye, garnering only three flags for 27 yards last week.
But this is a prime-time game against a physical team, a situation in which the Lions have not typically been at their most composed.
Tempers will flare, and "extracurricular" activity is almost a foregone conclusion. The Lions, certainly, are going to have their hands full just trying to beat the 49ers. But as usual, they'll need to keep from beating themselves, first.
And that takes on an additional dimension with the unpredictability of the replacement officials.
...But Get Mean
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While the Lions should try to avoid penalties wherever possible, they can't afford to shy away from playing to the echo of the whistle.
The Lions and 49ers are both teams built on physicality and toughness, and this game will be a test for both teams in that regard.
We know that the 49ers won't shy away from contact, wherever and whenever they can get it. If the Lions try to play a finesse game to keep the yellow laundry away, they will get dominated on both sides of the ball.
Everybody is going to come out of this game a bit sore, and some might come out a bit lighter in the wallet. But that's the kind of game this is going to be, and there's a good chance both teams have already embraced that.
The Lions can certainly outpace the 49ers on offense, but what we don't know is whether the Lions can match their level of grit on both sides of the ball. That's what dominated the Packers, and will do the same to the Lions unless the Lions can fight fire with fire.
If the Lions can match the 49ers in physicality, then we have a ball game.