Frank Gore vs. Lions’ front seven
The rejuvenation of Alex Smith’s career has been largely due to the coaching philosophy of Jim Harbaugh, who has relegated Smith to that of a game manager. In the style of Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer, Smith is simply there to hand the ball off, make simple throws when needed, and protect the football.
The engine that drives this 49er offense is runningback Frank Gore, who has churned out at least 125 rushing yards in each of the previous two weeks. The entire San Francisco philosophy is based on strong defense, protecting the football, and controlling the clock with the running game. The key to keeping the Lions’ explosive offense off of the field will be the consistency of Gore in the running game, as well as the 49er offensive line’s ability to control the Lions’ front seven.
Corey Williams has been a beast thus far in 2011 against the run. Ndamukong Suh is learning to balance his responsibilities in the run game, with his aggressiveness as a pass rusher. The linebacking corps played well on Monday night, but injuries may limit this group, leading to opportunities for the 49ers offensive line. Stephen Tulloch is nursing a sore ankle, and Justin Durant has missed two games with lingering effects from a concussion. Bobby Carpenter and DeAndre Levy need to continue their improved play from the past two weeks for the Lions’ defense to have a chance to get off of the field.
Detroit is giving up an average of 114 yards per game on the ground, which is good enough for 18th in the league, but it is more of a dire situation than statistics will indicate. Teams have run at will against the Lions early in games, but have abandoned the run late in games for various reasons. In some cases, the score has dictated what opposing offenses could do, and in others, poor play-calling has been a factor. If San Francisco can keep the game close, and the coaching staff remains disciplined enough to stick to their game plan of a heavy dosage of Frank Gore, the 49ers will find success against the lion defense.
49er defensive line speed vs. Lions’ pass protection
The Detroit offensive line has been a welcomed surprise for much of this season, not allowing teams to put consistent pressure on Stafford. The exception to this was week 3 in Minnesota, where defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison dominated a carousel of offensive tackles, and had a feast at the expense of Stafford. The problems were caused by the speed of the defensive pass rush off of the edge, which seems to be the kryptonite of this offensive line. San Francisco has an arsenal of speed rushers, including defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, as well as outside linebackers Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and Parys Haralson. These players have combined for 12 sacks so far this season, and using the 3-4 defense, have been able to often disguise the fourth rusher and send various combinations of players.
The Lions reacted to what happened in Minnesota, and have since moved Stafford into the shotgun for a large majority of offensive snaps. The shotgun is advantageous to a quarterback by allowing him more time to scan the defense, with less time spent dropping back. Stafford is better able to see outside pass rushers, and is able to get rid of the ball quicker when pressure is imminent. Detroit will be able to shield Stafford from this outside rush to a certain extent, as long as the interior of the offensive line holds. Pressure up the middle will force the quarterback right into the rush of the defensive ends on the outside.
Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus will have their hands full again this week, but if they are able to silence the 49er pass rush to the same extent that they silenced Julius Peppers, Detroit will pick apart the 49er secondary.
Other matchups to watch
The Lions are coming off of Monday night football, which was arguably their biggest game played in the last decade. A nationally televised divisional slugfest is an emotional drain on any team, and when combined with a short week of preparation, the Lions are primed for a letdown. The 49ers are traveling to the Eastern Time Zone for the second time this season, to play their third game on this side of the country. It is also a 1 p.m. kickoff on Sunday. Jetlag, combined with a very early start time for a west coast team, could lead to fatigue on the part of the visitors. It will be interesting to see if either team shows the effects of emotional or physical drainage, and even more intriguing to see which team can overcome the effects on their way to victory.