If any 49ers’ fans caught the Lions on Monday Night Football, I’m sure they feel a lot better about San Francisco’s chances this coming Sunday after Detroit self destructed against the Jets. QB Matthew Stafford accounted for four interceptions and head coach Matt Patricia’s debut in the Motor City was ugly to say the least.
This could mean two things: either the Lions bounce back in the biggest way and are able to put that loss behind them, or it carries into Santa Clara and the 49ers are able to take advantage. Based on their preseason, I’m going to assume that the Lions’ performance was an anomaly and that they’ll be significantly better on Sunday.
Let’s go ahead and preview Detroit’s offense for Sunday, when they come into town for the 49ers’ home opener. The Lions may have changed head coaches, but they return offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (one of my favorite NFL names), leading wideout Golden Tate, leading rusher Ameer Abdullah and obviously the $27M quarterback, Stafford.
After becoming a pass-heavy offense over the past few years (ranked 10th in passing attempts, 31st in rushing attempts in the NFL), Cooter would like to find more balance this season to take pressure off of Stafford. In comes free-agent bruiser LaGarrette Blount and second-round running back Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn, dropping Abdullah to third on the depth chart.
Here are the three things that 49ers’ fans should be aware of, heading into Sunday.
Lions’ inconsistent offensive line performance
Detroit’s signal caller hit the turf way too often in 2017 (47 times too many), leading to GM Bob Quinn spending his first pick in the draft on OL Frank Ragnow to bolster the group. Has it paid dividends so far?
In the preseason, Stafford was sacked five times in his two appearances, but he was untouched against the Jets in the season opener. When given time, Stafford is one of the best quarterbacks from the pocket and will pick defenses apart. After racking up three sacks this past Sunday, the 49ers’ defensive line will need to bring more pressure this week against another strong, yet inconsistent offensive line.
In this play from the third preseason game against the Buccaneers, C Graham Glasgow gets blown by the Buccaneers’ defensive lineman, taking down Stafford for a nine-yard loss.
Inside pressure, you say? That’s the 49ers’ biggest pass rushing strength, given that lineman DeForest Buckner lines up there. Buckner should be able to take advantage of the third-year center.
On this next sack, rookie right guard Ragnow misses his protection, letting the Buccaneers’ defensive line get to Stafford again to close out the half.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Lions had the eighth-ranked offensive line coming into the season, after adding quality starters via free agency and the draft over the last two seasons. Yet it hasn’t necessarily panned out on the field. The 49ers will need to take advantage early and often to slow down the Lions’ offense. Fooch’s note: Starting right guard T.J. Lang has not practiced the first two days of the week, and his status for Sunday is a question mark.
Detroit’s new ‘Smash and Dash’
In 2017, the Lions ranked 31st in rushing attempts, 32nd in rushing yards, and 21st in rushing touchdown. If the Lions are ever going to win a playoff game with Stafford, they need to find more balance in their offense. Quinn went to work in the offseason, signing Blount and drafting Johnson to take some weight off of Stafford’s shoulders.
Against the Jets, the formula didn’t really pan out, as the Lions were often playing from behind, leading to 46 passing attempts compared to only 15 rushing attempts. The Lions benched Abdullah and chose to activate pass-catching back Theo Riddick instead.
In the preseason, Blount was the Lions’ leading rusher, but on Monday night, the former Eagle gained (lost, really) minus-three yards on four attempts. Johnson was more effective against the Jets, rushing for 3.4 yards per attempt, while also catching three passes for 20 yards.
Here’s a 7-yard run from Blount against the Buccaneers, who has always been a difficult tailback to bring down, given his size and force that he runs with.
The 49ers are going to have to bring down Blount at the point of attack and not let him gain any extra yards after contact. If Robert Saleh’s defense can force the Lions’ offense to be one-dimensional, it could bode well on Sunday. It’s not often you want the opposing quarterback to drop back for 45+ times, but this week it should be the 49ers’ game plan.
This run against the Jets is what the 49ers have to do. Stack the box with eight players and take the Lions’ running game out of the picture. Jets’ safety Jamal Adams is able to hit Blount immediately, forcing a seven-yard loss on the play. 49ers’ safety Jaquiski Tartt should be placed in a similar role on Sunday.
On the flip side, here’s Johnson, a smaller, quicker tailback who brings a change of pace to Detroit’s offense. The ex-Tiger is also going to play a role in the passing game, so the 49ers’ defense should be aware.
Last week, Vikings’ running back Dalvin Cook torched San Francisco with six catches for 55 yards out of the backfield. Expect Cooter to utilize Johnson in a similar fashion, exposing the middle of the field. Especially with linebackers Brock Coyle (IR) and Reuben Foster (suspension), out on Sunday, expect the Lions to take full advantage.
Against the Jets, Johnson is able to take this toss play for an eight-yard gain on third down. Especially on shorter third downs, expect Johnson to be the tailback, so the Lions can mix it up with run or pass.
For the 49ers to have success against the Lions’ running backs, they’re going to have to slow down the rushing game and hope that Fred Warner and Co. can slow down Riddick and Johnson in the passing game. If the Lions’ change of pace backs are able to turn little dump offs into big gains, it’ll start to open up the entire Lions’ offense.
Motor City’s plethora of wide receivers
Stafford’s chemistry and continuity with his group of wide receivers is among the best in the NFL. Wideouts Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay are returning from last season and looking to explode this season.
While Tate led the Lions with receptions (92), Jones Jr. led the way in receiving yards (1,103) in 2017. Golladay was fourth in yards on the team, but with tight end Eric Ebron gone, it opens up more opportunities for the second-year receiver.
The 49ers are pretty familiar with Tate, especially from his days terrorizing them as a Seahawk. The veteran receiver will be Stafford’s go-to receiver, similar to the Vikings’ Adam Thielen. He’s going to work the middle of the field a lot and be a key piece on third downs.
Jones Jr. is going to be the deep threat, averaging 18 yards per catch last season. He caught the ball less often, but when he does, it typically ends up being a home-run play. As a result, he led the team in touchdown catches (nine) last year.
The former Northern Illinois receiver, Kenny Golladay, was only targeted 48 times last season, but was second on the team in yards per catch, right behind Jones Jr. Against the Jets, Golladay was their leading receiver, catching seven passes for 114 yards, even though Tate was targeted three more times.
Here’s one of Golladay’s big receptions on Monday, as he works the middle of the field and is able to beat the Jets’ corner for an easy pitch and catch for 25 yards.
With Tate and Jones Jr. likely gaining the attention of corners Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman, it means that Golladay will be matched up against K’Waun Williams. Advantage Golladay.
As for Tate, expect to see a lot of receptions similar to this play below. He’s going to find the open spot in the middle of the field and try to make himself open for easy passes from Stafford. While it looks simple, it moves the chains and opens up plays on the outside for Jones Jr. and Golladay.
While the Lions’ offense looked pathetic on Monday, I don’t expect any semblance of that team on Sunday against the 49ers. The talent, coaching and skill is their on paper, so it should translate on the field.
If I had to predict Cooter’s game plan, it’s going to involve lots of short passes to Riddick and Johnson, helping free up Golladay and Jones Jr. in the deep game. The 49ers’ run defense was successful in Week 1, but they were vulnerable in the short passing game. If San Francisco can take away those little dump offs and pressure Stafford into bad throws, they could come away with their first win of the season on Sunday.