49ers-Lions: 5 Things We Learned in San Francisco's 25-19 Win in Detroit

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IOctober 16, 2011

49ers-Lions: 5 Things We Learned in San Francisco's 25-19 Win in Detroit

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    The Lions had everything going for them.

    Home field in the Ford Stadium, with 65,000 fervent fans elevating the noise level to that of a carrier deck. Opposing team members can’t hear their teammates five feet away. Offensive tackles who can’t take their eyes off the defensive linemen had become incredibly twitchy, leading to illegal procedure calls in the first half.

    Kyle Vanden Bosch beat Joe Staley on San Francisco’s first play from scrimmage for a strip-sack. The Lions earned a first down within the 5. It was on—a Lions rampage like the 48-3 wipeout they had over Kansas City in September.

    But the Niner defense held the Lions to a field goal after they had secured a 1st-and-goal at the 6. A later Detroit possession within the red zone resulted in a touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew, giving Detroit a 10-0 lead. But if you watched the game there were three telling factors that gave 49er fans hope when things looked so dismal.

    First, Lion QB Matthew Stafford was getting hit. In the end, the 49ers sacked him five times, but there was plenty of pressure from Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald. Second, the 49er secondary played really well on tight coverage up front. And third, Matthew Stafford isn't all that great of a QB, despite great numbers. But then, no quarterback is when constantly harassed.

    The Lions came into the game averaging nearly 400 yards in offense and the Niners held them to 310. On their home field. The Niner defense didn’t have the benefit of a loud home crowd forcing penalty after penalty on the offense. No, the Niner defense wrapped up an explosive offense and put it on the sideline.

    In the end, Pettigrew led the team with eight catches for 42 yards. All-World receiver Calvin Johnson had seven catches for 113 yards, but the Niners kept him out of the end zone. After Vanden Bosch’s strip sack, you could say there were no more big plays from the Lions. There were big gains here and there, but nothing that swung momentum in a definitive way.

    For that, you have to credit the 49er defense, which made Detroit earn every yard.

Stout Defense

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    The Lions had everything going for them.

    Home field in the Ford Stadium, with 65,000 fervent fans elevating the noise level to that of a carrier deck. Opposing team members can’t hear their teammates five feet away. Offensive tackles, who can’t take their eyes off the defensive linemen, had become incredibly twitchy, leading to illegal procedure calls in the first half.

    Kyle Vanden Bosch beat Joe Staley on San Francisco’s first play from scrimmage for a strip-sack. The Lions earned a first down within the 5. It was on—a Lions rampage like the 48-3 wipeout they had over Kansas City in September.

    But the Niner defense held the Lions to a field goal after they had secured a 1st-and-goal at the 6. A later Detroit possession within the red zone resulted in a touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew, giving Detroit a 10-0 lead. But if you watched the game there were three telling factors that gave 49er fans hope when things looked so dismal.

    First, Lion QB Matthew Stafford was getting hit. In the end, the 49ers sacked him five times, but there was plenty of pressure from Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald. Second, the 49er secondary played really well on tight coverage up front. And third, Matthew Stafford isn't all that great of a QB, despite great numbers. But then, no quarterback is when constantly harassed.

    The Lions came into the game averaging nearly 400 yards in offense and the Niners held them to 310. On their home field. The Niner defense didn’t have the benefit of a loud home crowd forcing penalty after penalty on the offense. No, the Niner defense wrapped up an explosive offense and put it on the sideline.

    In the end, Pettigrew led the team with eight catches for 42 yards. All-World receiver Calvin Johnson had seven catches for 113 yards, but the Niners kept him out of the end zone. After Vanden Bosch’s strip sack, you could say there were no more big plays from the Lions. There were big gains here and there, but nothing that swung momentum in a definitive way.

    For that, you have to credit the 49er defense, which made Detroit earn every yard.

Whamming the Lions

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    Detroit’s explosive offense is one thing, but it’s the defensive line that sets the tone for the Lions. Ndamukong Suh, Vanden Bosch and the rest of the crew are speed rushers aimed at destroying opposing passing games.

    It’s a good theory. Let the offense score some points on offense and then turn the sprinters loose to get to the pocket.

    The Niners didn’t let the 10-0 lead throw them off. In fact, it might have helped them. Suh and others love to get deep penetration. The 49ers used that against them. On Frank Gore’s first 40-yard run late in the first quarter, it was Vernon Davis blocking down on Suh, pushing him past the play. It was Delanie Walker at wingback cracking inside on sealing Detroit’s interior rush. Gore waited for the hole to open and burst through.

    They actually used the Lions’ aggressiveness against them. That the 49ers gained 203 yards on the ground proves that their tight end-oriented offense can handle the big, bad pass rushers. Gore ended up with 141 yards on 15 carries.

    With Kendall Hunter, they combined for 174 on 23, and throw in Ted Ginn Jr.’s two reverses for 21 yards and you have an answer for a defense that, on paper, appeared so fearsome.

Ted Ginn Jr. Oct. 16, 2011

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    How do you quiet 65,000 fans just like that?

    You hang around and hang around as a team, never giving up the big, big play, never making the big, big mistake. Of course, it helps that you have superior special teams play. Aside from a stout defense that limited Detroit to 19 points on four trips within the Niners’ 10-yard line, you do it with special teams.

    David Akers hit a 55-yard field goal to put the Niners up 12-10 at the half. Punter Andy Lee repeatedly put the Lions deep in their own territory. Yet Detroit had plenty of chances—perhaps none better leading 19-15 with a first down on their own 40 with less than six minutes remaining.

    The Lions ended up with just 66 yards rushing, but running wasn’t an issue—not with Calvin Johnson waiting. Lion QB Matthew Stafford, however, waited too long on his deep drop, and Aldon Smith sacked him and stripped the ball. Detroit recovered but lost 18 yards in the process. What had looked to be a promising drive to get a game-clinching score turned into a "Let’s get out of here with minimal damage."

    Two plays later, Ginn returned Ryan Donahue’s 39-yard punt 40 yards, setting up the Niners’ eight-play TD drive.

    The Niners turned the crowd noise level off by cutting out the big plays, executing on special teams and making the offensive plays when they had to.

Pounds, Not Inches

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    The 4th-and-goal slant pass to Delanie Walker that went for a TD came down to inches, and though it was reviewed, it looked even on ultra-slo-mo to be a TD. Not by much, but by about three or four inches.

    Already, 49er fans and commentators are calling it Alex Smith’s best pass. It was—on the right spot, at the right time. But what made the play was Delanie Walker’s strength as he carried the weight of DB Louis Delmas that one extra half yard that enabled him to get the ball past the plane of the goal line.

    Walker weighs 242 pounds, and Delmas goes out at 202. Walker is not the 49ers’ best receiver. That goes to Michael Crabtree, who had an excellent game with nine catches for 77 yards. He’s not even SF’s best tight end; that’s Vernon Davis.

    In the end, he was the right man at the right time because he gave Harbaugh the right matchup he wanted—big versus small. Smith’s pass was right on target, but it was on target in the right setting.

    That’s one example of how and why the 49ers have turned around so much under Harbaugh and staff. Last year at this time they were 1-5; now they’re 5-1 and virtually locked into the NFC West title.

    What’s more, they appear to be getting better.

Organic

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    One of the wonderful things about team sports is that—this is a cliché, I know—the whole is greater than the individual parts. But if you look back four weeks ago to a team that struggled to score and move the ball against a rather uninteresting Cincinnati team and compare it to what happened in Detroit, you see a major transformation.

    The offense is hardly in the class of Green Bay and New England, but then again, you can say that neither defense of those teams has a defense in the class of San Francisco. Because of that defense, the Niners have been able to come from behind in the fourth quarter and win three of their last four games.

    Harbaugh has created a dynamic, compelling team that is just starting to grow. They are hardly world-class on offense, but their defense and special teams have played to a high level.

    They are great against the run, and off the top of my head, Stafford’s 28-of-50 performance netted him only 244 yards, thanks to five sacks and constant pressure from the defensive front seven.

    The 49ers are a team that is limited on offense with the exception of not hurting itself. Even the two turnovers by Smith led to only three points. And that’s all on the defense.

    When they get Braylon Edwards back, perhaps in two weeks against the Browns, the offense can expand some. In the mean time, they’re winning on guts and great defense. Specifically, they have the best inside linebacking tandem in the game—Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They have perhaps the best linebacking crew in the game, and they have a rookie outside rusher, Aldon Smith, who is only getting better.

    This is a team that can win a lot of games if they continue to improve. That they got this far this fast proves that Harbaugh is The Coach of the Year. But more importantly, it shows that Harbaugh and staff can mold this team to emphasize its strengths, minimize its weaknesses and, better yet, steal a win from an opposing coach.

    Just ask Jim Schwartz (above, right).