San Francisco 49ers: Week 2 Position-by-Position Preview
In a perfect world, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would enforce a pregame handshake between Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh on Sunday night in hopes of extinguishing the hype as quickly as possible.
The San Francisco 49ers (1-0) were able to eke out a 25-19 victory over the Detroit Lions (1-0) last October, but not before the two coaches engaged in a postgame "scuffle" of sorts. One that, as you probably know, has since taken on a life of its own.
I, like Harbaugh, prefer the focus to be directed toward the on-field events that occur while the game clock is actually running.
This matchup on Sunday night presents us with two hungry and immensely talented football teams, each looking to remain undefeated early in the year.
San Francisco is the consensus favorite to claim victory at Candlestick Park this weekend (that's what the experts at B/R are telling us anyway), especially after cruising to a 30-22 win against the Packers at Lambeau Field while resembling a team that possesses little to no weaknesses.
But the Lions felt they let one slip away when these two last met, and they head to the Stick in seek of vengeance.
Let's break down the 49ers roster position by position and find out what must be done for the Red and Gold to tame the Lions once again.
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Alex Smith and the 49ers offense were able to pick Green Bay's 3-4 defense apart in Week 1, but the Lions D will provide a much different look.
A year ago, Detroit's front line gave San Fran's QB fits all day long. Out of Smith's 10 turnovers in 2011, two came against this unit, including one on the Niners' first offensive play—a forced and recovered fumble for DE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Smith was clearly bothered by the heavy pressure up front, finishing the day 17-of-32 for 125 yards, one TD and one interception. There was little help from his receivers, who piled up five drops in the game.
None of that mattered, however, because Smith's final pass was a completion. In fact, it was a TD pass to TE Delanie Walker on fourth down to help clinch the comeback win.
This time around, wideouts Randy Moss and Mario Manningham enter the picture. Smith and the offense went into Lambeau and dropped 30 points on the Pack, and the two free-agent additions produced with receptions on all eight of their targets from Smith (four apiece).
As a result, WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis found much less resistance in the secondary.
Now, Smith owns the franchise record for consecutive passes without an interception (185), and he looks to extend that mark on Sunday.
If the offensive line can neutralize the Lions' fierce pass rush, there's little reason to believe this passing attack won't pick apart a banged-up and relatively untested Detroit secondary.
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No 49er should enjoy seeing the Lions come to town as much as Frank Gore.
The franchise's rushing king rumbled his way to a season-high 141 yards on just 15 carries against Detroit last year, and he boasts an average of 5.4 yards per carry in four career meetings.
Gore showed there's still plenty left in his tank, totaling 112 yards and an impressive 23-yard TD run in Green Bay last week.
Detroit's D was gashed by the run game for much of 2011, but they held Rams Pro Bowl RB Steven Jackson to just 53 yards on 21 carries in a promising run-stopping performance led by linebackers Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch.
San Fran's O-line excels in blocking at the second level, so the 49ers success in the run game will likely hinge on whether or not blockers can prevent Detroit's linebackers from shedding blocks and getting downhill.
Backup RB Kendall Hunter impressed the heck out of the 49ers Faithful throughout the preseason, and he made good on his nine carries against Green Bay as well. Barring an injury, you can expect a similar dose of the shifty ball-carrier in Week 2.
Outside of Hunter, we probably won't see much action from the 49ers depth at running back. Rookie second-round pick LaMichael James was a healthy scratch last week; Brandon Jacobs sat out with a knee injury, and Anthony Dixon wasn't used outside of special teams.
For now, the 49ers seem to trust Gore as the go-to guy in short-yardage situations. Jacobs sat out of practice again Thursday, so Harbaugh may choose to stick with the same plan if he can't suit up.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
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The Lions secondary has been ravaged by injuries, but you won't hear the 49ers pass-catchers complaining.
CB Chris Houston returned to practice for Detroit this week, but rookie CB Bill Bentley and free safety Louis Delmas were no-shows on Thursday, and their odds of suiting up Sunday are bleak at best.
If neither Bentley nor Delmas can go, Houston and strong safety Amari Spievey will serve as the only two members of the Lions secondary who played the 49ers last year, and Spievey saw just four total snaps against the Rams last week, according to Pro Football Focus.
Many of us are still waiting for that Alex Smith deep ball cruising into Randy Moss' awaiting hands, but I wouldn't expect the 49ers to dabble with that just yet. The Lions D-line deserves respect, and quick, short passes should be a priority once again.
Smith aired it out 20 yards or more just once last week, a Vernon Davis wheel route to the sideline that resulted in an incomplete pass.
Speaking of Vernon, what can we expect from him? No. 85 found the end zone again in Week 1, making it five scores in his last three games if you count the 2011 playoffs.
That said, he was targeted just two times in last year's matchup, while No. 2 TE Delanie Walker stole the show with his game winner.
The key member of this unit, however, is Crabtree. The fourth-year pro was targeted early and often in that game, going for 77 yards on nine receptions. He did so despite minimal help from the rest of the unit.
I expect the 49ers to implement a heavy dose of Crabtree into the game plan again this week, and Manningham should get some looks as well. It's crucial that they get separation from defenders early, because Smith likely won't be able to stay in the pocket for long.
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Let it be known that this is the unit that needs to step up Sunday night.
Aside from a relentless Clay Matthews pass rush (recorded 2.5 sacks against San Francisco and terrorized Chicago Thursday night, taking down Jay Cutler four times), the Niners offensive line was dominant against Green Bay.
If they can put forth a similar performance against Detroit, the Lions will be hard-pressed to find any type of success at the Stick.
If a seemingly improved run defense causes a couple San Francisco 3-and-outs to start the game, the 49ers could run into trouble by leaning on the passing game too heavily.
Right tackle Anthony Davis had a game to forget at Ford Field in 2011, allowing six QB hurries in addition to being penalized three times.
I was in attendance that day, and I have to admit that crowd made it next to impossible for San Francisco to communicate on offense. False starts were a regular occurrence throughout the contest.
That won't be an issue this week, and the 49ers will be much better for it. Another bonus is that Davis looked considerably more comfortable at his position in Week 1. Some of that credit should be directed toward Alex Boone, who put together a near-flawless 60 minutes and gives the 49ers a clear upgrade over last year's options at right guard.
In fact, former 49er Adam Snyder took the majority of the snaps (50/70) that game and was graded by Pro Football Focus as the offense's worst performer by far.
Moving on to the defense, DE Justin Smith absolutely terrorized the Lions offense in 2011, overpowering the entire left side of their O-line all day long.
Justin was able to hurry QB Matthew Stafford on six different occasions, while he and the sack-master Aldon Smith scored two sacks apiece.
The picture above tells the story. No. 94 was an animal then, and Sunday night in front of the faithful could somehow fuel him even more.
Stafford and the Lions will employ a Packers-like passing attack (three to four receivers at all times), and it's a safe bet that 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have his defense in nickel and dime packages much of the game.
One thing that tells us is nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga's playing time will be sparse. "Soap" saw just seven snaps against Green Bay, and his run-stopping abilities won't be needed much this week either.
Take a look at the left side of the 49ers defense early in this game. If DE Ray McDonald and OLB Ahmad Brooks can frustrate RG Stephen Peterman and RT Gosder Cherilus, LT Jeff Backus and LG Rob Sims won't be able to get much help slowing the dynamic duo of Aldon and Justin.
If Stafford feels pressured throughout the game, the ball-hawking 49ers secondary will have a field day.
That's if he can even get the ball out of his hands.
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Many 49ers fans were somewhat shocked that five-time All-Pro Patrick Willis sat out a third of the team's 72 defensive snaps last week, and several even questioned an injury.
Fangio noted (per CSN Bay Area) that typically only one inside linebacker is used in their dime package, and NaVorro Bowman's position is the one that's included.
It certainly helps that Bowman looks like he's nearly on Willis' level—pass coverage included.
We may see more of this Sunday night, but not nearly as much as last week. Willis was a monster in pass coverage, defending three passes on the day and neutralizing TE Brandon Pettigrew by himself so that the secondary could remain focused on Calvin Johnson and the Lions' other receivers.
P Willy did allow one touchdown to Pettigrew, but his coverage was nearly perfect, Stafford just made a hell of a throw, and the tight end held on while Willis desperately tried to jar it loose.
We previously discussed the outside linebackers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The two will need to create pressure from the edge in order to force Stafford into making ill-advised throws.
Anytime your secondary draws the task of defending Megatron, an effective pass rush is essential.
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Second-year CB Chris Culliver held his own against Johnson a year ago, but Tarell Brown wasn't quite as fortunate.
That said, Brown has turned his game up a notch from early last season, and he has also made it known (per Mindi Bach of CSN Bay Area) that he's giddy for the chance to compete against the NFL's top receiver Sunday night.
Expect another strong performance from SS Donte Whitner, but it'll be up to FS Dashon Goldson to make sound decisions in the secondary. The Lions aren't coming to play small ball, and the aggressive safety had a sub-par performance in last year's meeting.
Pro Bowl CB Carlos Rogers should be impressive as usual, but Perrish Cox (the 49ers No. 4 corner) will need to tighten things up a bit from last week.
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What else can we say about All-Pro kicker David Akers?
He's a new, proud member of the 63-yard club, and he's a clutch contributor anytime he's called upon.
Same goes for punter Andy Lee, who will out-punt any opponent on game day. On five punts last week, Lee settled three inside the 20-yard line and averaged 51.2 yards on each boot.
The Lions return game features 5'6", 180-pound Stefan Logan, who can be dangerous in space. He averaged 10.6 yards per return on five punts in Week 1.
As for kick returns, don't expect him to be much of a threat. The NFL ruined that fun for everyone when they moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011.
For San Fran's return game, CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reports that Ted Ginn is doubtful for the upcoming game while he continues to nurse an ankle sprain.
That leaves Kyle Williams to field punts for a second straight week, with Hunter likely handling kickoffs.
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The battle between these two head coaches will be won with their minds, not their mouths.
Jimbo's crew outsmarted a very knowledgeable coaching staff in Green Bay, and I'm confident they'll continue their mastery of the playbook once again.
Stafford's poor decision-making in Week 1 (three interceptions) wasn't Schwartz's fault, but if San Francisco's defensive schemes can confuse Aaron Rodgers, they'll have Stafford's brain scrambled all day.
It's up to Schwartz and his staff to ensure the offense is prepared, but how do you prepare your team to outsmart your opponent when they almost always know what you're next move will be?
I'm not sure you can. And it could make what should be a physical, hard-fought battle a short-lived fight for the Lions at the Stick on Sunday night.
Final Score Prediction: 49ers, 27-17
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