Much has been made of the infamous handshake, as NBC and the NFL attempt to capture ratings and intrigue for their marquee Sunday matchup, but just how much of an impact will the past have on the present?
If you ask either coach, the answer is none, cut and dry, simple as that, matter of fact. “What happened happened”, “it is what it is”, and every other cliché that can be used to put the onus back on the players playing the game. But the competitor that dwells within all of us can read between the lines, and we each know that while the conflict between the two may not be of Capulet and Montague variety, it will add some flavor, and attitude to this weekend’s contest.
We’ve all experienced it; that one opponent who just plain sticks in our craw, whose failures bring about absolute jubilation, and whose successes make us seethe with hatred and disgust. The Lions and 49ers are each the other’s villain, and in an NFL devoid of true animosity, and full of player unity, have become the closest thing to a rivalry since Manning’s Colts and Brady’s Patriots of the early 2000’s. Both teams want desperately to become the NFL’s next dynasty, and they stand in each other’s way along that path.
This animosity, although many will refuse to admit it, is perhaps born out the slightest bit of envy. The Lions and their fans watched the 49ers ascension to the NFC Championship game last season following their week 6 victory in Detroit. A game that united a team, a victory that a young fiery coach used as a launching platform to truly inspire his men. Jim Schwartz wanted exactly that, and in some aspects he got it through his post-game actions that rallied a team behind their coach. And while the media become gluttons for their “handshake-gate” storylines and quotes, the truth is that the incident will have little impact on the outcome of the game, but the two men involved most certainly will. This week’s key matchups will examine how Schwartz and Harbaugh will impact the game through coaching, rather than post-game antics and revelry.
Jim Schwartz vs. Jim Harbaugh
In some regards their masked contempt for one another is bred out of their similarities. These two men are largely the same coach, in that they are both young, up and coming, with teams at the threshold of greatness. Both men have the ability to make their players want to fight for them, an old school mentality that had long been lost in the “business” of the NFL. The comparison that is most notable lies in their emotions. Neither man can hide their anger, or excitement, nor would either man care to. Their passion is inspiring, and their confidence contagious. These two traits can display as arrogance, which is how some view both Schwartz and Harbaugh. The right mixture of passion, confidence, and arrogance, can make a good coach; one that you love if he’s yours, and despise if he’s not.
Whatever your allegiance, the outcome of this game will rely heavily on the strategy of these two coaches, and their staffs. Each will be looking to exploit areas of success from last season’s matchup, and addressing areas of weakness. This will ultimately lead to the battle at the line of scrimmage. In order for San Francisco to be successful offensively they must run the football, as they did last season. The 49ers boast one of the biggest offensive lines in the NFL, and often add extra blockers as tight ends and fullbacks to support their power run game with Frank Gore. The Lion front seven limited Steven Jackson to pedestrian totals in week one, and must do the same to Gore. If the 49ers have success in the run game it opens up their entire offense, and simplifies the decision making process for Alex Smith, as was evident against the Packers. San Francisco attacked the Green Bay linebackers with a heavy dose of play-action in order to slip crossing routes behind them. If the Lion front seven can limit Gore without dropping a safety into the box, Smith will be forced to make actual reads, go through his progressions, and ultimately make mistakes. If the Lions have to commit extra defenders to the box for run support, Smith will be able to pick apart the Lion secondary in single coverage using play action and short routes. In many ways, the Detroit front seven must play a stellar game in run defense in order to slow down Alex Smith and the 49er passing attack.
The battle at the line of scrimmage will be paramount for the Lion offense as well. It is common knowledge that the Lions can’t run the ball effectively, and that the 49ers play the best run defense in the league. The success of the Lion offense will depend on pass protection. For obvious reasons it is pertinent to keep Matthew Stafford from getting hit, but in this matchup hurries can be just as effective as sacks for the 49er defense. The SanFrancisco secondary plays a very physical style of football, jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, and counting on the pass rush to force quick releases. This leads to disrupted timing, and ultimately turnovers. The 49ers have found success in forcing short completions due to the fact that they are the best tackling team in the NFL. Matthew Stafford has to play much smarter than against the Rams, and be patient. The 49ers win by attrition, slowly wearing down their opponent. If Stafford can be patient enough to take what the defense is giving, opportunities for big plays will present, and the Lions will be able to strike. If he becomes impatient and tries to force the ball down field, the result will be similar to the first half of last week’s game.
The outcome of this game will rely largely on the passion of the two coaches, and their ability to motivate their teams. This matchup last season was arguably the most physical football game of the year, and that will likely carry over into this weekend. This is a game that will be won on the interior, with sweat, muscle, and pain. It will be the type of football game that differentiates being hurt from being injured. Whichever team wins this contest will have to be hungry, aggressive, and downright nasty, as each takes on the mentality of their leader.