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Where the Lions could have a key advantage over the 49ers

The 49ers will need to have a better performance against the run this weekend.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Francisco 49ers Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are set to take on the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday evening, hoping to book their ticket to the Super Bowl for the first time in 2019.

Sunday’s contest will be a game between two high-octane offenses, as the 49ers averaged 398.4 yards (2nd in NFL) and 28.9 points (3rd in NFL) a game, while the Lions earned 394.8 yards (3rd in NFL) and 27.1 points (5th in NFL) a contest.

Additionally, both teams have found success through the ground and aerial attack, sporting top-five marks in both categories regarding yards.

Defensively, both teams sport top-five rushing defenses; while the 49ers allow 214.2 passing yards a game, good for 14th in the NFL, while the Lions allow 247.4 yards a contest through the air, which ranks 27th in the league.

Earlier this week, I pointed out the 49ers’ passing game as their main advantage over the Lions, as they have the advantage on paper with their personnel.

Now, where could the Lions have a key advantage on Sunday?

The answer comes with their run game, orchestrated by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, and executed by arguably the league’s best offensive line, who block for the running back duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Montgomery, a 225-pound bruiser back, is Detroit’s leader in carries, and serves as a downhill runner who has the ability to churn out hard-fought yards, as he averaged 2.3 yards after contact per rush this season, good for third in the NFL.

His counterpart, Jahmyr Gibbs, was a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and has been a revelation for the Lions' offense, being utilized in more of a change-of-pace role, both as a runner and a receiver. Moving more in space, Gibbs averaged 5.2 yards per carry this season, with 2.5 coming after contact, good for second in the NFL.

Now, if the 49ers possess one of the league’s top rush defenses, why is Detroit’s run game their key advantage on Sunday?

Well, San Francisco will be without rotational defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who started all 17 regular-season games for the 49ers before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams.

Ferrell is mainly a rotational piece, but the defensive lineman was one of the better run defenders on the team, especially at the edge position.

Additionally, the 49ers are playing with a limited Arik Armstead, who made his return against the Green Bay Packers last weekend after missing the last five games of the season with a foot and knee injury.

With those two factors, San Francisco struggled to contain Aaron Jones on the edge last weekend, with one of the running back’s runs going for 53 yards due to some poor contain and tackling.

Jones did only rush for 3.2 yards per carry on his 17 other carries, but his biggest carries came to the outside, where edge rusher Chase Young struggled at times to contain his position.

Looking at the Lions’ duo of running backs, Montgomery and Gibbs possess different threats on the ground, which could stretch the 49ers defense out more.

Montgomery piled forward against Tampa Bay’s stout interior run defense to gain 57 yards on 14 carries, primarily working inside the tackles for his yards.

In fact, Montgomery rushed for six yards less than expected, but the Lions’ offensive line was still able to create enough holes (2.4 yards before contact per rush) that the running back averaged over four yards a carry on the day.

Gibbs, on the other hand, primarily worked outside of the tackles, and generated a number of explosive plays, including a 32-yard rushing touchdown, when working in space as a rusher.

This is where the 49ers need to truly be concerned, as the 49ers weren’t as disciplined against the run last weekend, but were still able to make enough plays to keep Green Bay at bay, no pun intended.

Had the Packers dedicated more of their offensive approach to the run game, however, they could’ve seen more success.

As for the Lions, they got at least 25 carries in both of their playoff games as they looked to strike a balance, which will likely be their M.O. against the 49ers.

Prior to the playoffs, defensive end Nick Bosa highlighted how running the football and stopping the run are integral in the playoffs.

With as strong of an offensive line as the Lions have, look for them to utilize the run game as a complement to their aerial attack early and often on Sunday.

If the 49ers cannot stop the run at a high rate, Detroit could slow the pace of the game down, allowing the Lions to control time of possession and keep things close against San Francisco’s high-octane offense.

The battle between Detroit’s rushing attack and San Francisco’s run defense will likely dictate how successful the Lions can be in their first NFC Championship appearance since 1991.