The Detroit Lions traveled to San Francisco for a Week 2 matchup of 2011 playoff teams, and they lost 27-19. This was an over-hyped football game which featured a compelling blend of teams. The 49ers have arguably the best defense in the NFL, and the Lions offense is as powerful as it gets.
Something had to give, and the game was decided on the field between these two units. The 49ers were simply too strong on defense, and they forced the Lions to play an extremely conservative football game on offense. The 49ers dared the Lions to beat them with the run by playing six players in the box, and the Lions could not manage to run the ball, even with a player advantage.
There were a few plays and schemes that the 49ers ran that took their toll on the Lions offense and defense. We are going to break those plays and schemes down as they were critical to the outcome of the football game.
The 49ers had success in last year’s game against the Lions by utilizing a running play that got running back Frank Gore loose early and often. They went back to that play again in this year’s contest. This running play killed the Lions on Sunday night.
The 49ers ran the ball extremely effectively using the tight end trap, a play that takes advantage of the aggressiveness of the defensive tackle by forcing him to come up-field, and then running the ball directly behind the tackle who gets walled off by a trapping tight end.
In this case, the 49ers gave Lions defensive tackle Corey Williams a free release up the field. He could not help himself since his job is to push the offensive lineman into the backfield and break up the play.
Williams got up the field a few yards and reacted to the handoff to Gore, but as soon as he turned to make the play, the tight end trapped him and sealed him from the ball carrier. The aggressive nature of the Lions' defensive tackles actually helped to set up this run.
The 49ers decided they had enough personnel up front to handle the Lions running attack, even though they would be shorthanded. They were right, and their defense physically mauled the Lions in every aspect.
The Lions were content to run the ball on first down and settle for a short throwing game. Let’s look at how the 49ers played their coverage to prevent the Lions from attacking the defense vertically. This picture is a perfect example of what Stafford was looking at throughout this game.
The Lions were five wide in this play, and the 49ers rushed four linemen. They dropped seven players into coverage, and the Lions ran three short out-routes to the sideline and two routes to try to challenge the 49ers deep.
Because of the pressure that the 49ers got from the left defensive end, Stafford had to throw the ball to a double-covered Johnson. There was nowhere else to throw the ball because no receiver was open. Note the depth of the safety circled in blue as he is 26 yards away from Stafford playing center field.
Another way that the 49ers limited the effectiveness of the Lions passing game was to put multiple players in the area where Johnson was running his routes and have those players stay in a bracketed zone coverage.
The 49ers lined up linebackers outside on receivers while safeties were jumping routes and cornerbacks were running deep preventing the Lions from taking shots deep into the 49ers’ secondary.
The Lions saw this kind of coverage throughout the entire game. In this play, linebacker Aldon Smith was lined up out wide in press coverage over Calvin Johnson. As the ball was snapped, Smith chipped Johnson and allowed him to release.
The safety was about 14 yards away from Calvin and was in a slow back-pedal. As Johnson came free, the safety jumped the route and forced Stafford to look away from Johnson as the cornerback turned his hips and covered the deep area of the field. Stafford could not stare at Johnson to let the route develop.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman handled Nate Burleson as he came in motion and let him go. Bowman had the short area of Johnson’s side of the field covered, and there was no room to throw the ball short to Johnson.
Stafford had to settle for a throw underneath the defense as they took Johnson away perfectly.
The Lions managed to keep the score close, even though they were realistically never in the game. The 49ers kept them at an arm’s length the entire game and settled for a close, grind-it-out affair. The 49ers could have run away with the game but chose to stay conservative on offense.
This was a one-score game in the fourth quarter, and the Lions had a chance if they could have gotten their defense off the field on third downs. They simply could not do it, as they allowed multiple long third-down passes to get completed for first downs.
The Lions had the 49ers in third and long three times on a crucial drive in the fourth quarter but failed in coverage and could not tackle the receiver. 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree iced the game by catching all three passes, converting them into first downs.
The Lions did a poor job of tackling the opposition. They had a few shots at bringing Crabtree down short of the first-down marker, but they simply could not take him to the ground. The picture shows Crabtree catching the ball four yards short of a first down with three Lions bearing down on him.
Cornerback Kevin Barnes did a nice job of getting to Crabtree right away, but he failed to wrap him up and Crabtree bounced off of him and slid between linebacker Justin Durant and safety Erik Coleman for a first down.
The Lions were never out of this game, and they fared pretty well, considering the strength of the team they faced and the fact that it was a road game. The Lions did not look altogether out of place on the field against what some consider to be the best team in the NFL.