The 49ers will play their home opener Sunday night against the Lions, a team that hasn’t won a game at Candlestick Park since November 2nd, 1975. Add to that the 49ers have won their last eight games against the Lions dating back 1995, including a 25-19 win last year in Detroit, and you would think it would be smooth sailing for San Francisco.
Then again, this is the NFL and every game is a new challenge, especially when you’re facing a high powered offense that features the talented young quarterback Matthew Stafford, the number one draft pick out of Georgia for the Lions in 2009, and arguably the best wide receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson.
Defense Wins Championships?
The games featured matchup will pit the Lions lethal offense, which was top three in NFC in last season, against the 49ers stingy defense, which was number one in the Conference in 2011.
Head to head last year, the 49er’s D held Stafford and the Lions to 19 points, which was well under their season average of 30 points per game.
Similar to the success the St Louis Rams had early on last week against the Lions, the 49ers defense will have to put pressure on Stafford, not allowing him to be comfortable sitting in the pocket.
The 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will need to continue to apply pressure with different defensive schemes, sometimes allowing his big three to create the push while mixing in linebacker and secondary blitzes.
Fangio did a masterful job keeping Aaron Rodgers off balance last week, constantly changing up looks for the quarterback and the offensive line, which created a key interception and numerous hurried passes.
If the 49er’s defense cannot get to Stafford and make him uncomfortable, he will pick the secondary apart and find the open receiver.
The second storyline features the Lions defense, 23rd in the NFL last season but projected to be much improved this year, going against a 49er offense that just outdueled the Green Bay Packers, an offense that most people consider the best in the NFL.
The Lions defense not only has more continuity and depth, it showcases Ndamukong Suh, Detroit’s young star defensive tackle who can create havoc for opposing quarterbacks.
Alex Smith talked earlier in the week about Detroit’s defensive line and the growth of the entire defense.
“Well, I think the defense as a whole has just continued to change. The defensive front, the D-line is definitely a strength of theirs, just look at them. It’s a lot of guys up front that all can play football at a high level, and a strength of theirs for sure.”
Smith continued, “I think they’ve added some things as far the whole defensive scheme, they do a little bit more. In general, still similar to the team we played last year, obviously the same system in place. But yeah, they do some different things here and there and you never know you play a team twice, pretty sure it’s not going to be the same way they played us last time.”
Fortunately for 49er fans, San Francisco’s offense also looks like they are ready to take the next step as Head Coach Jim Harbaugh seems to have Alex Smith comfortable in the pocket and spreading the ball to multiple receivers.
He also appears to be ready to take off the training wheels and let Smith throw the ball down field on a more consistent basis.
The 49ers not only added receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to create more options for Smith, but they added depth at the running back position by picking up free agent Brandon Jacobs from the Giants, and drafting LaMichael James out of Oregon, to spell Frank Gore and keep him fresh.
The Lions will have to shut down a balanced attack from the Niners’ offense, one that will likely contain approximately fifty percent pass to fifty percent run.
Super Bowl or Bust?
The third featured story line has to do each team and their playoff aspirations. The 49ers and the Lions both made the playoffs last year for the first time in a long time. For the 49ers, they hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2002, and for the Lions, it was 1999.
The Lions were dispensed by the heavily favored New Orleans Saints in the Wildcard game, but it was a huge step for a franchise that sees itself on the rise.
The 49ers took an even bigger step as they went 13-3 and beat the Saints in the Division game, only to narrowly lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants in the Championship game.
Not only do both teams have an excellent shot at making the playoffs, they could find themselves playing one another, which makes this game’s outcome and strategy even more important.
The Undercard: Harbaugh Vs. Schwartz
Finally, probably the most talked about storyline this week, and one that you don’t want to ask Harbaugh about, is “Handshake-gate.”
Our approach with the mini-controversies are really to give them the attention they deserve, which isn’t much,” Harbuagh said on Monday. “Now, people who choose that to promote this game or any other game, they are really missing the point. The game is just so much bigger. Just as a rule of thumb, I have too much respect for the men who play this game on both sides, and too much respect for the game, to give it anything (more) than what it deserves.”
Harbaugh is of course responding to a question about the postgame handshake last season when he excitedly, some would say over-excitedly, ran up and shook the hand of the Lions head coach Jim Schwartz while slapping him on the back.
Schwartz took exception to the un-gentleman like handshake and went after Harbaugh, pursuing him while spewing profanities and throwing hand gestures in his direction.
Both coaches have downplayed the significance of the altercation, and both claim there will be no issues on Sunday evening, but it will be interesting to see how the two coaches handle the face-to-face encounter either before the game, or after.
While it’s true the national media has blown it way out of proportion, and it’s almost a guarantee NBC will as well on their broadcast Sunday evening, it’s clear there is no love-loss between these two coaches and if the game gets out of hand, it could get interesting.
(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes taken first-hand.)