San Francisco is coming off a 24-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers, while the Lions recently defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 to move forward to their first conference championship appearance since 1991.
The 49ers are facing a Lions team who sports a much different identity than the Packers team they just beat, as Detroit excels on the offensive side of the ball, sporting a strong run game that is supported by the league’s second-best passing attack this year in regards to yards.
Defensively, however, is where the differences truly lie, as the Lions are one of the league’s best run-defending teams in 2023, but they have struggled to defend the pass, allowing 247.4 yards per game through the air, which ranks 27th in the NFL.
Let’s break down that aspect of the game, pointing out where the 49ers have their biggest advantage over the Lions.
The Lions have not been a great team at defending the pass this season, as their personnel causes them to struggle against teams with multiple high-end weapons.
Well, the 49ers certainly have multiple elite weapons, as wideout Brandon Aiyuk just had an All-Pro caliber season, while Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle both were named first-team All-Pros as well. Then, there’s Deebo Samuel, who exited the divisional round matchup with a shoulder injury and could potentially play on Sunday, rounding out the NFL’s best supporting cast.
Detroit’s struggles primarily come in the secondary, as their corners consist of Cameron Sutton and Kindle Vildor, while their pass rush hasn’t always gotten home. The Lions held the 26th-best pass-rush win rate in 2023 at 36 percent, according to ESPN.
Despite Brock Purdy’s struggles against a resilient Packers team, the 49ers will certainly look to exploit their matchups in the passing game, which becomes even more doable if Samuel is able to play, even in more of a decoy role.
The Lions gave up the most yards to receivers this season, and a ton came via explosive plays, as they allowed the fifth-most yards per catch in the NFL as well.
However, the Lions weren’t great against any position in the passing game, as they gave up the 10th-most yards to tight ends this season, but the fourth-most yards per average, indicating a high number of explosive plays again.
Detroit allowed 100+ yards in both matchups against the Minnesota Vikings, who feature top tight end T.J. Hockenson, while tight ends went for at least 60 receiving yards in seven games this season, including the playoffs.
While the Lions stop the run at a high rate, the 49ers have been able to churn enough efficiency to run the ball at least 25 times against top run defenses, such as the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while also looking to be aggressive through the air.
With San Francisco’s advantage in the passing game on the offensive side, the 49ers’ defense has the biggest challenge of stopping the Lions’ two-pronged attack.
If the defense can generate enough stops, the 49ers will be in a favorable spot with the matchup they’ve been dealt.