It wouldn’t be surprising if the Lions didn’t circle the game against the 49ers as an important early season matchup when the schedule was released last April. Now that the game is finally here, what are the sentiments like on the other side?
I got together with Eric Melendez, editor of Niner Noise, to get a feel for the matchup and the 49ers from the San Francisco perspective. My thanks to Eric for taking the time to answer my questions.
1. Despite a very good 2011 season a lot of people were surprised with the 49ers win over the Packers in week one. What is the buzz with 49ers fans?
Eric Melendez: The rest of the NFL is now catching up with the 49ers fans way of thinking, which is San Francisco is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. I was surprised by the way people reacted to the Packers loss to the 49ers. Many thought it was the Packers who lost the game, but it was clear the 49ers were the better team on offense, including in the passing game, and defense. The 49ers dominated throughout the game and shut down a late Aaron Rodgers rally, all at Lambeau Field. A lot of people don’t give the 49ers credit because of Alex Smith. But, what they don’t realize is Jim Harbaugh has molded Smith into the franchise quarterback the team thought they drafted back in 2005.
2. Neither coach wants to talk about last year’s post game handshake yet Schwartz keeps getting asked about it. Why the media keeps asking about it is inexplicable considering Lions fans don’t care to hear about it anyway. How are 49ers fans handling the handshake coverage?
EM: The attention around the post game handshake is not surprising because the media loves side stories and to amplify them. For better or worse, rarely is one of the focuses of the game on the head coaches. Most Niners are not putting too much stock in the handshake coverage, other than it gives them another reason to cheer louder for the 49ers and boo the Lions. Personally, I like the attention surrounding Handshake Gate, because even though both Harbaugh and Schwartz say it is not an issue, you know they are thinking about. Both coaches are hugely competitive and want to win in the national spotlight on Sunday Night Football. They would also like to have bragging rights with the win.
3. Alex Smith looks like a different quarterback now than the start of last season. Is that all Jim Harbaugh and what differences do you notice most?
EM: A big problem of Alex Smith’s early career was a lack of continuity at offensive coordinator and having a head coach that believed in him as a starter. This is only Smith’s second time in his seven year career he entered a season with the same offensive coordinator. The last time this happened, 2009-2010, the 49ers had Mike Singletary at head coach who would go on to replace Smith with Troy Smith in 2010, who is no longer in the NFL. At offensive coordinator during those two seasons, Smith had Jimmy Raye who ran a vanilla offense and was fired after week three in 2010.
Jim Harbaugh has made a huge difference in the way Smith played last season and in week one. When Harbaugh joined the 49ers he brought in someone he was familiar with, Greg Roman, to serve as offensive coordinator. Roman had the same title under Harbaugh at Stanford from 2009-2010, so they are on the same page on how they want to run the offense. Harbaugh has a great track record of developing quarterbacks and Smith was his biggest challenge yet. The biggest difference with Smith is he has confidence not only from his head coach, but confidence in himself, capable of being a successful starting quarterback.
4. The Lions offense against 49ers defense will be a great strength vs. strength matchup to watch, what do you see as the keys that could determine which strength prevails?
EM: The 49ers defensive line is one strongest in the NFL but it will be a tough pushing the Lions offensive linemen past the line of scrimmage. One of the keys for the 49ers will be their linebackers moving in quickly to rush Stafford out of the pocket and meeting the running backs at the line of scrimmage to stop their momentum. The 49ers did this well against the Packers who run a similar style of offense like the Lions that focuses on the pass, interspersed with runs. For the 49ers to prevail, they will need their secondary to be able to double cover and shut down Calvin Johnson, while not allowing the Lions other weapons to get open for big gains.
5. What is your prediction for Sunday night’s game?
EM: The game will be much like last season’s contest in Detroit, with a back and forth, edge of your seat game decided in the final minutes. A defensive touchdown will give the 49ers a led in the fourth quarter and they will hold on to win 31-25.