49ers vs. Lions: 5 Battles to Watch in Sunday's Critical Game in Detroit

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IOctober 13, 2011

49ers vs. Lions: 5 Battles to Watch in Sunday's Critical Game in Detroit

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    They are, together, a surprising 9-1 going into Week 6. Tell people at your favorite sports bar back in August that the Oct. 16 showdown San Francisco-at-Detroit would be the NFL’s premier game among elites, and you’d be laughed into buying another round.

     A quick glance at the stats shows how similar they are:

    • Points per game: SF 28.4 (seventh in league), Detroit 31.8 (fourth)
    • Points Allowed: SF 15.6 (second), Detroit 17.8 (fourth)
    • Passing Defense: SF 264.4 (23rd), Detroit 224.4 (12th)
    • Turnover Differential: SF plus-10 (second), Detroit plus-7 (t-third)

     It is a game that features a Detroit’s high-impact players ready to become household names, such as Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch. The 49ers counter with Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis, but this, on paper, appears to be a game in which no one player will have an over-riding impact on the game.

     It will require a team-wide effort on the part of either team to prevail, and within that parameter, here are five battles to watch in Sunday’s critical game in Detroit.

Noise

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    After watching the Lions knock off the Bears on Monday night, it seems that the 49ers will have two opponents to worry about: the Lions and the Lions fans. Nine times, the Bears were called for illegal procedure, no doubt the effect of 65,000 screaming fans drowning out snap counts as well as audibles and even radio messages transmitting the plays to the quarterback.

    When going against the likes of Suh and Vanden Bosch, offensive linemen cannot afford to be even an eye-blink late in getting off the ball. Both defenders are incredibly quick and strong; being late means getting beat, and that destroys a play.

     Detroit averages 36 points at home and 29 on the road—hardly a significant difference. But they have given up only 16 points in two homes games compared to the 73 in three road games. The home field advantage means average points allowed for Detroit away-home is 24-8. In other words, three times better at home.

Calvin Johnson

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    With 29 catches at 15.6 per, Johnson, the 6’5”, 240-pound wide out from Georgia Tech ranks among the most potent, imposing and talented receivers in the game. He’s got nine TDs, nearly two a game. Quarterback Matthew Stafford looks to him early and often. And while RB Jahvid Best gives the Lions a bolt of electricity, it’s Johnson who ranks as a defense’s No. 1 priority.

    The Niners’ 4-1 record can be attributed in large part to the improved play of the secondary. The Niners have eight interceptions, third-best in the league. At the same time, a look over the stat sheet shows that big name receivers from Philadelphia (DeSean Jackson: six catches, 171 yards and Jeremy Maclin 7-74) and Dallas (Miles Austin 9-143) have done lots of damage to the 49er defense.

     Of course, it also follows that Stafford is not the scrambler like Philly’s Michael Vick, nor does Calvin Johnson have a supporting cast like Austin does in Dallas (namely, Jason Witten).

     Forty-Niner defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will focus on Johnson with various coverage schemes and blitz packages. The Niners will want to make Stafford prove he can win by throwing to WR Nate Burleson (17 catches, 187 yards, zero TDs) and TE Brandon Pettigrew (26 catches at 10.7 and one TD).

Edges

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    For those who watched the 49ers dismantle what many had thought to be a very good Tampa Bay defense last week, one unique scheme stood out: the use of multiple tight ends on one side of the formation.

     For example, in a tight formation, the left side of the line will read G Mike Iupati, T Joe Staley, TE Justin Peele, and flanked tight to Peele are two more TEs, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

    This enables the 49ers to run some of the most basic running plays in football, where Peele and Staley double-team a defensive end, Davis kicking down on a linebacker, a fullback or pulling guard kicking out on the outside linebacker and Walker battling a smaller defensive back.

     It’s big-on-small. But it also does another thing. It crowds the point of attack.

     Players like Vanden Bosch and Suh play well in space. They are fast and strong. How do you negate their skills? Make them play in a crowd. As one coach would say, you’d like them to play in a telephone booth where there’s no room to move.

    That’s what three tight ends do: They can crash down on Suh and Vanden Bosch, pushing them into the scrum. Speed doesn’t matter when you’re trying to step over bodies. And it also widens out the outside pass rush lanes, which gives 49er quarterback Alex Smith a little more time.

49er Offensive Line

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    Aside from getting off the ball, the offensive line and the 49er rushing attack in general may be the antidote to what has been making the Lions’ so successful: big plays by Johnson, big pass rush by Suh (90) and Vanden Bosch.

    The Niners average 31 minutes in time of possession, 10th best in the league. And it’s an old football parable that the best defense is a good offense. Time-consuming drives wear down a defense while keeping a potent offense on the sidelines. And what’s more, they can take out the crowd.

    So it’s up to Joe Staley and Anthony Davis at the tackle position, Adam Snyder and Mike Iupati at guards and center Johnathan Goodwin to set the pace. Success doesn’t have to be big plays as much as a steady drip-drip-drip of first downs, eating up the clock, limiting Detroit’s chances and frustrating the home team and crowd.

    (SF fact: Since Adam Snyder has started at right guard; Frank Gore has gone over 100 yards in successive games. Coincidence? I think not.)

Composure

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    The thing about conference games is that head-to-head is the first tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record and in the same place in the standings. In light of the weak NFC West compared to the strong NFC North, which is led by undefeated Green Bay and Detroit, that factor seems mitigated.

    Or maybe it’s not.

    The feeling is that Green Bay is better than Detroit, but that Detroit is definitely a playoff-caliber team. If the Niners win the NFC West, they’ll host a playoff game no matter what. But if Detroit wins out over Green Bay and the Lions and 49ers record is the same, then that potential crucial rematch in January will take place in the home field of Sunday’s victor.

    That’s three months away. A lot of football has to take place, and yet, this game could be as critical as any. It’s the sort of thing that a coaching staff and team will recognize and consider while they battle.

     And then there’s one other element to that: The team that wins gains confidence. It knows it can win. And that feeling goes even deeper if the 49ers win. Having to win in Detroit wouldn’t be so imposing a challenge in January if they have accomplished it in October.