Call it the "Handshake Bowl" or maybe even "The Battle of the Jim's." Either way, the San Francisco 49ers home opener against the Detroit Lions on Sunday night promises to be filled with drama, passion and intrigue.
The National Football League and NBC couldn't have drawn it up better.
As many of you remember, San Francisco went into Detroit and beat a then-undefeated Lions' team in a game that sent shock waves throughout the league. It was all about two up-and-coming teams giving it their all in the game of the week. In the end, San Francisco came through when Alex Smith orchestrated one of his many fourth quarter comebacks.
However, it was the handshake that really caught the attention of the sports world. Who was at fault? Was Jim Harbaugh showing up his counterpart? The debate continued for what seemed like weeks. Who cares? The bigger story should have been that San Francisco went in and laid the wood against Detroit, coming through like aces at the end of the game. It was a defining victory in a season of defining moments for this franchise.
Fast forward a little less than a calendar year and you have these two teams facing off in what promises to be yet another game where passion will be flying high.
Let's take a look at a couple matchups in Sunday night's nationally televised heavyweight bout. No, you will not hear one more mention about "The Handshake" in this article (pats self on back).
Alex Boone and Jonathan Goodwin against Ndamukong Suh
This is where it gets interesting. Suh is an absolute beast when he plays up to the level of his talent. The former Nebraska standout and Pro Bowl performer as a rookie in 2010 has the strength to dominate an interior line in the National Football League.
He is coming off a down season in 2011 when suspensions and penalties seemed to plague the massive defensive tackle. He didn't produce nearly at the level as we saw in the previous season. In fact, Suh was somewhat of a liability against the run. Opposing teams were able to run on him due to his lack of adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Too often, Suh was left going up the field, which left a wide open area for the running back to push through. It is all about containment for the defensive tackle.
Meanwhile, Boone aced his first regular-season test as the 49ers' starting right guard last week. He pulled to the right and opened up a massive lane for Frank Gore in the latter's game-clinching touchdown run the fourth quarter. More importantly, Boone was dominant at the point of contact against B.J. Raji, a Pro Bowl performer last season.
If the Ohio State product is able to keep Suh off his game by pulling to the right and gaining control of the line of scrimmage, it will go a long way in determining how successful the 49ers' run game is Sunday night.
With that in mind, Suh represents Boone's biggest test of his young career. The talented right guard is going to have to contain Suh in pass-protection as well, no small feat.
This is where Goodwin comes into play. He will be going nose-to-nose against Suh a great deal on Sunday night as well. The veteran center struggled early on last season before picking it up down the stretch when he got used to San Francisco's scheme. That success continued into the opening week of the 2012 season against the Green Bay Packers. Goodwin will have to be on top of his game for San Francisco to succeed in both pass-protection and on the ground.
Calvin Johnson against 49ers' Secondary
Expect San Francisco to employ the very same game plan against Johnson and the Lions as they did last season. Although "Megatron" did accumulate seven catches for 113 yards, San Francisco did a great job containing him. Johnson failed to score a touchdown and was only targeted a total of nine times. That game represented the first time Johnson failed to score a touchdown in 2011 after putting up nine in the first five games.
Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown did bang-up jobs on Johnson as Carlos Rogers was left attacking weaker Lions' receivers throughout the game. This scheme seemed to work perfectly. Expect Culliver to get in the face of the best receiver in the game and San Francisco to employ help over the top with either Dashon Goldson or Donte Whitner.
Remember, Johnson can change a game on its face with just one long touchdown catch. He has done this time and time again throughout the last couple of seasons. Don't expect the 49ers to play off-coverage in fear of Johnson beating them deep. Instead, Vic Fangio and Co. will get in his face and attempt to throw him off his route.
I like this matchup for San Francisco.
Detroit Lions' offensive line against San Francisco 49ers' pass-rush
This is where San Francisco has a huge advantage. Matthew Stafford is nowhere near as calm and collective in the pocket as the 49ers last three opponents, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Instead, he can get flustered and make mistakes. We saw this first-hand against the St. Louis Rams in the season opener last week.
Expect San Francisco to mix-up personnel packages here to take full advantage of mismatches that appear clear across the board.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will rotate between right and left outside linebacker, leaving Detroit to question where each one is at all times. Who here doesn't like the idea of them going up against an aging Jeff Backus and under-performing Gosder Cherilus? Even in max-protect mode, Detroit is going to have issues handling Smith and Brooks.
More importantly, how will Detroit contain the edge pass-rush with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald holding down the fort at the defensive end positions? Expect San Francisco to win this battle big time, which will have a huge impact on the outcome of the game.
San Francisco 49ers' receivers against Detroit Lions' secondary
Detroit will most likely be without three-quarters of their starting secondary when they travel to San Francisco on Sunday night. Chris Houston, Bill Bentley and Louis Delmas are all highly unlikely to play.
Considering that the Lions' secondary is suspect when healthy, this is going to be a huge advantage for the 49ers. Jacob Lacey and Jonte Green will probably get the starts at cornerback with newly signed Drayton Florence playing the nickel spot. Meanwhile, long time special teams standout John Wendling will start at free safety in lieu of Delmas.
Talk about a major mismatch at nearly every position here. Who covers Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree? How is Detroit going to account for Vernon Davis between the hashes? Can Florence handle Mario Manningham in the slot? You can rest assured that Gunther Cunningham and Co. have spent long nights thinking about this during the week.
Either way, Alex Smith should have a field day against Detroit's pass defense if he gets time to pass the ball. In fact, you could easily start Smith in your fantasy football league this weekend and be relatively confident he will put up great numbers.
As you might have read on the NFL page, I have the 49ers winning this game 31-20. While the game might not even be that close, it is important to note that San Francisco is still taking on a team that made the playoffs last season.
The atmosphere will be electric, Detroit will be coming into a hostile environment, and San Francisco is riding high after soundly defeating the Green Bay Packers in every possible way last weekend.
Unless the 49ers get complacent here, they will hit the road with an impressive 2-0 record against two of the "top teams" in the NFC.