When the 2011 schedule was released in April there were not many that would have expected the Week 6 matchup between the Lions and 49ers to be the game of the week. Lo and behold the Lions sit at 5-0 ties atop the NFC North while the 4-1 49ers have a stranglehold atop the NFC West. Sure, the NFC West is the worst division in football by a wide margin, but don’t let that allow you to underestimate these 49ers.
The 49ers are led by a stingy defense that is allowing an NFC best 15.6 points per game and leads the league in turnover differential. Offensively, they rank near the bottom of the league in every category except for rushing yards, but they don’t make mistakes. The control the tempo of the game with the running game and let their defense force turnovers to give the offense a short field. It’s not a glamorous approach, but it is definitely effective.
The 49ers run an 3-4 defense that has done an excellent job pressuring offenses into mistakes. The Lions dismantled the Chiefs’ 3-4, but had some issues figuring out the Cowboys’. The 49ers have better talent than the Chiefs and don’t do as much crazy shifting and blitzing as the Cowboys, so it’s tough to glean much from the Lions’ previous encounters with the 3-4.
The Lions are obviously a pass first team, and that won’t change against the 49ers. They will continue to operate extensively from the shotgun and spread the defense out with three receiver formations. The Lions are not expected to have Tony Scheffler available as he recovers from a concussion, so expect to see more of Titus Young in the offense. The other possibility is more playing time for Will Heller, which could lead the Lions to run the ball more because of his excellent blocking ability.
Looking at the 49ers’ depth chart, there aren’t any names other than Patrick Willis that jump out. They are a group of misfits and retreads that play as one cohesive unit. The key for the Lions will be protecting Matthew Stafford to give the receivers time to work against an overmatched 49er secondary. The pass rush is generated by rookie linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith, so those will be the two to keep your eyes on.
Jahvid Best had a breakout game on Monday Night Football, but I don’t foresee him having that same impact this week. 3-4 defenses pose a challenge for smaller backs because the extra linebacker addds more speed on the defense to flow to outside running plays. The defense is vulnerable to inside runs, but that’s where Best has had more difficulty running. The Lions will try to get creative like they did against the Bears, using traps and counters to spring something big, but don’t expect the Lions to have sustained success running the ball.
The Lions’ defensive approach this year has been concede the running game to stop the pass. The Lions’ explosive offense is supposed to build a lead and force teams to abandon the run. Then the offense has to play right into the defense’s strength. While they have had success with that approach, it has really haunted them the last three weeks against teams that committed to the run. The Vikings, Cowboys and Bears all used the running game to build leads at halftime. The Vikings and Cowboys inexplicably got away from the running game and tried to pass the ball more in the second half, which allowed the Lions to mount huge comebacks. The Bears defense couldn’t stop shooting themselves in the foot and let the Lions build up enough of a lead that they had to pass to try to come back.
The Lions’ defense is designed to be aggressive, so once a running game has been established they become vulnerable to play action passes. The Bears, Vikings and Cowboys all took advantage of that in the last three games. The 49ers entire offense revolves around establishing the run and using the short passing game to methodically move downfield and avoid turnovers. Their offense is built specifically to take advantage of defenses like the Lions’.
The 49ers are unleashing Frank Gore as the physical between the tackles type guy, while rookie Kendall Hunter is the big play threat. Alex Smith very rarely throws the ball, averaging about 25 passes a game, and when they do throw it’s short quick passes to avoid the pass rush and limit negative plays.
The Lions’ pass rush will have a hard time getting to Smith because of the quick passes and the running game will be used to open up play action. The pass rush will have to be fueled by a loud home crowd that helps the Lions’ line get a better jump off the snap than the offensive line.
This game pits the Lions against a team whose strategy is specifically designed to neutralize their gameplan. If the Lions concede the running game to the 49ers they could really struggle to keep them off the field and the Lions’ offense will sit on the bench and have a hard time getting into rhythm. If the Lions try too hard to pass the ball downfield, and turn the ball over, it plays even more into San Fransisco’s hands. This game hinges on execution. If the Lions can build an early lead and force San Fran to pass more, the Lions will win big. If the 49ers grind the pace of the game down and keep it close with the running game and good defense, they take the crowd out of the game and stand a chance to upset the Lions.
The 49ers have handled some explosive offenses against the Cowboys and Eagles, but they lost to the Cowboys because they didn’t turn the ball over as often as other opponents. The 49ers had a huge comeback against the Eagles because the Eagles couldn’t stop turning the ball over. The Lions have taken care of the ball this season, so I expect they should win the turnover battle. I can easily see the 49ers controlling the clock and the Lions struggling to find rhythm and the game being closer than expected. Ultimately, the Lions have the more talented team and home field advantage in their favor, so I expect to see them move to 6-0.