San Francisco 49ers vs Detroit Lions: 10 Keys to the Game for the Niners
This Week 2 challenge will be a rematch of a hard-fought game that took place at Ford Field in 2011. The 49ers came away with a 25-19 road win over the Lions in a tense, physical fight between NFC contenders.
For a second straight week, the 49ers will be one of two teams in America's Game of the Week.
On Sunday night, San Francisco will host Detroit in a game that will epitomize the physicality of football. The 49ers are going to have to play a smart football game, executing mentally and physically. The Lions are no doubt bitter over the way the last game ended and will be looking to take their frustrations out in Week 2.
In this piece, we'll breakdown the keys to the game for San Francisco and how they can start 2012 with a 2-0 record.
Contain Calvin Johnson
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Job No. 1 for the 49ers: Limit the Lions' best weapon, Calvin Johnson.
Detroit does not tote a potent ground game or a threatening No. 2 wide receiver. By all intents and purposes, Calvin Johnson is a one-man offense for the Lions. As such a dominant receiver in this league, Johnson is an early favorite for Offensive Player of the Year.
The last time these two teams faced off, Johnson did go over a hundred yards, but he was held without a touchdown.
The 49ers (4-1) and Lions (5-0) met in Week 6 in what was then America's Game of the Week. Johnson was averaging two touchdowns per game at that point as the Lions looked unstoppable through the air. The All-Pro wide receiver finished the 2011 season with 108 receptions for 1,892 yards and 18 touchdowns—gaudy statistics that would make anyone do a double-take.
If the 49ers allow Johnson to run through this defense and make plays, the Lions could steal a win at Candlestick.
Win the Turnover Margin
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The 49ers are still developing their new-look offense, and until they prove they can be a consistent unit capable of generating 25 to 30 points a game, they will place emphasis on the turnover margin.
There might not be a better team than the 49ers when it comes to ball control. This team protects the football on offense and relentlessly pursues it on defense. Intelligent football coaches like Jim Harbaugh understand the trends in this league and know that if they win the turnover margin, this team greatly increases its chances of coming away with a victory.
In 2011, San Francisco was ranked first (plus-28) in the league's turnover ratio, and they also went 13-3.
The Niners executed a rather simple formula of minimizing their mistakes and optimizing their opportunities. Against Green Bay, they seemed to continue that philosophy. They won the game and won the turnover margin with a plus-1 (one takeaway and no giveaways).
San Francisco's defense needs to force Matthew Stafford into some mistakes and capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves. And if the Niners offense continues to play their brand of football, which entails a methodical, error-free approach, San Francisco could come away with this one.
Don't Get Complacent
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The challenge the Lions present is that they are never truly out of a game. Teams are forced to play hard against them for 60 minutes despite multi-score leads late in the game. This Detroit offense, powered by the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection, is one of the more explosive units in the NFL.
San Francisco cannot get complacent in this match—they need to keep taking swings at the Lions.
There is the slight concern that the Niners get an early and the Lions put together some sort of second-half surge. Stafford has been able to engineer some pretty remarkable comebacks, and his budding relationship with Johnson is arguably the best QB-WR connection today.
The 49ers have already seen an explosive passing offense in 2012. In Week 1, the 49ers got a lead on the Packers and never gave it up. San Francisco was full-go all game and didn't rest until Chris Culliver made the pass breakup on fourth down and the Niners knew it was officially over.
The Niners need to be ready to play four full quarters—or more.
Make the Lions One-Dimensional
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The Detroit Lions are already a team that loves to utilize the shotgun formation. Their identity, first and foremost, is a big-play passing team that will throw to their running backs before handing off to them. Additionally, their upcoming opponents are also notoriously and historically difficult to run against.
It shouldn't take long for Scott Linehan to completely abandon the run against San Francisco.
And I think, even though it seems futile, that if the Lions abandon the run, they condemn themselves to a loss. The Niners excel at stopping the run, so much so that teams quit trying to do it all together against them. They force teams to become one-dimensional, and that's when the 49ers really get them in a stranglehold.
When the Niners know what's coming, they can stop virtually anything—for them, the mental part is half the battle. And with their personnel, they can limit the league's most elite passing attacks. Their front four is so effective at getting after the quarterback that it makes the jobs of the men in the secondary seem like a cakewalk.
This team's complement of pressure and coverage is in a league of its own right now.
Pressure and Hit Matthew Stafford
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This is something the 49ers do very well.
This defense imposes its will on teams and is very, very physical. It's a certainty that on any given Sunday, when the 49ers take the field, they are going to out-hit their opponent. At the foundation of this game, it is a sport predicated on physical contact. And the fact that the Niners are the best in the business when it comes to that gives them a tremendous edge.
In 2012, Vic Fangio's 49ers defense is a throwback to old-school toughness.
And not only is this a well-coached group under Fangio, but it's a talented one. The players are all unique and all serve a purpose in the defensive system. They can execute the extent of the playbook and successfully defend any look they could possibly get on game day.
For Matthew Stafford, this is a nightmare matchup.
This defense flies around up front, and they can send pressure from anywhere. They disguise their blitzes well and find the best routes to the quarterback. They also have one of the league's best up-and-coming pass rush specialists.
The ability to get pressure and rattle quarterbacks is going to play in San Francisco's favor on Sunday night. If they can get to Stafford with some frequency, it may be a long day for the Detroit offense.
Take Advantage of a Weak Lions Secondary
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This is probably the mismatch of the game.
The 49ers receiving corps received some much-needed attention this offseason, upgrading with players like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. The Niners have depth, rotating players in and exploiting mismatches.
Furthermore, Detroit fielded one of the worst defensive backfields in 2011, and they did little to improve it in the offseason.
On top of that, two of their regular starters, CB Chris Houston (ankle) and FS Louis Delmas (knee) are questionable going into this game. Both were inactive in the Lions win over the Rams in Week 1. One of their starters Sunday will be rookie third-rounder Bill Bentley of Louisiana-Lafayatte.
Of San Francisco's six wide receivers, four were first-round draft picks. They are a group made of NCAA legends, future Hall of Famers, Super Bowl winners and potential future stars. The 49ers should have mismatches all day against the Lions secondary.
CB Chris Houston (ankle) practiced this week, while third-rounder Bill Bentley (concussion) is expected to miss Sunday night's game versus the 49ers. Louis Delmas also does not appear ready to return.
Neutralize Ndamukong Suh
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Much how the Lions have a clear-cut great offensive player, they have a great defensive player. That individual is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
In Week 6 of 2011, the 49ers had a game plan to neutralize the disruptive interior lineman. Specifically on running plays, the Niners motioned No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker between center and guard, setting up a wham block on Suh upon the snap.
The 49ers did this half a dozen times, but twice, Gore broke loose for big gainers that set up crucial red-zone scores for San Francisco.
It would be wise for the Niners to attempt to shutdown Ndamukong Suh, preventing him from having any significant impact on the game. Outside of of Suh, the Niners have a great shot of winning their matchups, so they can afford to dedicate extra attention to No. 90.
If they make him a non-factor, they'll improve their chances of being effective on offense.
Win Time of Possession
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Whenever you're facing an explosive offensive attack, it's important to win the time of possession. It's about limiting opportunities. The longer the Lions have the ball, the more chances they ultimately have to generate big plays.
San Francisco has an edge with their run game when it comes to winning TOP. The 49ers can grind games out with their prevailing ground attack, which features a stable of capable ball-carriers. They could run the ball all game effectively because they can keep guys fresh.
Also, the fact that the 49ers don't turn the ball over too much helps them win this particular category. The offense doesn't cough up the ball much, having only 10 total giveaways in all of 2011.
And finally, the 49ers defense plays into this. They are constantly improving, and they pride themselves on kicking offenses off the field on third down. It's easy to go 3-and-out against this Niners defense, so that will provide San Francisco's offense with plenty of opportunities.
Win Field Position with Special Teams
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Football is a game of inches. It's something that is often forgotten in this new-era passing league where big plays are all the rage. But this 49ers staff values the slow-and-steady approach to winning games. They do a lot of little things well.
One of those things is special teams.
All-Pro punter Andy Lee is one of the most unheralded players, not only on the 49ers but in the NFL. He plays an integral role in helping San Francisco control field position. He is accurate, consistent and has an unbelievably strong leg. Opposing offenses dread Lee because he puts them in such unfavorable starting positions.
He will play a role in challenging Detroit's offense on Sunday night.
The 49ers can also help themselves out with plays in the return game. With Ted Ginn Jr. still questionable, Kyle Williams is likely to assume the return duties for a second consecutive week. Williams had a clutch return before halftime in Week 1 to help setup the 63-yard David Akers field goal.
The Niners need to support the offense with strong special-teams plays. Williams is a very capable returner. He is someone who brings quickness, foot speed and elusiveness. If he fills in for Ginn again, the 49ers will need a solid performance from Williams.
The special-teams game played a role in the bout between these teams last year, and it will likely be a factor again.
Keep Alex Smith Upright
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The Detroit Lions present a challenge with their front four of Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
In 2011, on San Francisco's first offensive play against Detroit, Vanden Bosch dipped his shoulder against Joe Staley and snatched the ball right out of Alex Smith's hand mid-windup. The play by the defensive lineman gave possession to the Lions and took an opportunity away from the 49ers.
The Niners will want to limit their mistakes against the Lions; they can do that by protecting Alex Smith.
If Smith stays vertical throughout this game, he can execute this offense and the game plan they have in store to secure a win. The 49ers may need their tight ends and backs helping out, providing chip-blocks on rushing defenders. But they should be able to do this because they have so much extra firepower that they won't hurt themselves by leaving someone in the backfield to help protect Smith.
Smith has proven before that he can beat this Lions team if his offensive line does its job to the best of their abilities. If Smith stays upright and he's got throwing lanes, the 49ers should win this Week 2 matchup at Candlestick Park.