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49ers vs. Lions roster preview: This game will be won and lost in the trenches

Detroit has quickly developed into one of the biggest threats in the conference. Their roster is prime to play spoiler, but is it their time yet?

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

For the fourth time in five seasons, the 49ers find themselves in familiar territory. Their opponent? Completely unfamiliar. Detroit has one of the youngest teams in the league and experienced their first playoff victory in over 30 years just two weeks ago. With a shot at the Super Bowl, San Francisco will host the Lions for the big game before the Big Game.

The home team will have its hands full trying to stop a top-five scoring offense. The game will be dictated by the battle in the trenches. Let’s take a deep dive into the Niners’ upcoming opponent and how their rosters stack up for the NFC Championship game.

SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS DET SECONDARY

Advantage: SF

There’s a real possibility the 49ers will be without Deebo Samuel this weekend, as much as he wants to be on the field. That does limit the advantage of the 49ers passing attack, although Detroit fans might not see this as an impactful injury since one of their defensive backs, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, stated Samuel “...can’t run routes, [you’re] a running back.” If Deebo does play, Gardner-Johnson may want to find a safe space where Samuel doesn’t have the chance to make him pay for those words.

Gardner-Johnson (who has only played in five games this season due to a pectoral tear) and the Detroit secondary have been gashed consistently through the air all season. Only the Cardinals, Broncos, and Rams have a worse PFF Coverage grade.

Only the Bengals gave up more yards per attempt. San Francisco should find plenty of opportunities to hit explosives and march the ball down the field with the passing game. CJGJ did grab an interception last week but is splitting time with safeties Kerby Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu. Joseph leads the team in picks, but he is one of only seven safeties with a PFF coverage grade below 50.0 (min. 200 coverage snaps).

At corner, the Lions have started the combo of Cameron Sutton and Kindle Vildor since week 17. Sutton was torched for seven receptions, 147 yards, and one touchdown on ten targets against Tampa in the Divisional round.

Dating back to the regular season finale, Sutton has surrendered a passing touchdown in three straight games and seven total this season. Vildor started the season on the Bears before being cut, spending time with Tennessee and Philadelphia, and finally landing on the Lions practice squad.

Since being elevated in week 14, Vildor has given up 22.1 yards per reception and has allowed an opposing passer rating of 140.6 when targeted. There are no excuses for the 49ers passing game to falter on Sunday.

The lone bright spot for the Lions’ back end was versatile rookie Brian Branch. The second-round pick out of Alabama has found success quickly at a position that is difficult to transition to in the NFL. He was fifth in the league in pass breakups while spending the majority of the season as the nickel defender. Out of all Detroit’s starters, Branch posted the highest run defense grade and second-highest coverage grade this season.

SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs DET 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

This is another level of the game in which San Francisco should be able to exploit Detroit’s defense. George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey have to be catalysts early and often in the passing game. Starting with the safeties, the aforementioned Melifonwu has been solid in his eight starts, which includes the past two playoff victories.

The former third round pick was one of the Lions’ best tacklers all season. Detroit likes to bring pressure with defensive backs, and Melifonwu made the most out of his blitzing opportunities, generating three sacks in the regular season (good for third on the team), and adding two more last week.

As mentioned, Joseph was boom or bust (mostly bust) in coverage this year. He wasn’t particularly bad against the run but did have 14 missed tackles, second most on the team. Gardner-Johnson is much more a liability, having posted at least 15.0% missed tackle rate every season after his rookie campaign. Detroit is a good run-stopping team, but there is enough evidence to suggest the Niners can take advantage of getting to the second level and yards after the catch against their defensive backs.

That also rings true for their linebacking unit. Alex Anzalone posted a bottom-ten PFF tackling grade among the position in 2023 (min. 200 snaps). His 23 total missed tackles were the sixth-highest in the league.

Anzalone can be taken advantage of in coverage too, where 61% of his yards allowed came after the catch. In the divisional round, linebacker Derrick Barnes sealed the win with a last-minute interception of Bucs’ quarterback Baker Mayfield. Barnes is experiencing career highs in just about every statistical category but has given up the third-highest yards per catch allowed among linebackers.

And even when the Lions get into base defense with a third linebacker on the field, teams have been able to take advantage. Rookie Jack Campbell has struggled to adapt to NFL play speed. It’s still early in his career, and there have been flashes against the run, but when opposing teams drop back to pass, Campbell gets exposed, posting a 38.9 coverage grade.

SF O LINE vs DET D LINE

Advantage: DET

Detroit’s best players on defense are on the front four, starting with the 2022 second-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson had the fifth-highest pass rush grade this season, behind only a handful of the league’s elite pass rushers. Despite only tallying 11.5 sacks, Hutchinson led the NFL in total pressures. Hutchinson possesses excellent pass-rushing traits, starting with his massive 6’7 frame. He’s a monster power rusher, and Kyle Shanahan would be wise to add chips and double teams when he lines up over right tackle Colton McKivitz.

Perhaps the most unheralded player on the Lions’ roster is defensive tackle Alim McNeill. McNeill is another young difference maker up front who posted the eighth-highest overall grade and fifth-highest run stop grade among interior defensive linemen this season.

McNeill showed last week that he is fully healed from the knee injury that knocked him out of four games at the end of this season, as he generated three pressures against Tampa Bay. Outside of their two stars, Detroit will deploy a healthy rotation both inside and outside but lack any real difference makers. No other defensive lineman has more than two sacks this season. In fact, the Lions have only registered a 36% pass-rush win rate (26th) and 27% run-stop win rate (31st) as a team.

Tackles John Cominsky and Benito Jones have logged the most playing time this year. Cominsky is third on the team in pressures and has the versatility to line up from B gap to wide nine. Jones is more of a true nose tackle, but the coaches decided to go with veteran Tyson Alualu (who didn’t join the team until December) to start last week’s contest.

But Detroit is still searching for an impact on the edge opposite Hutchinson, too. Cominsky started outside a week ago, with Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal used as substitutions. Those three combined for two pressures against the Bucs offensive line.

DET O LINE vs SF D LINE

Advantage: DET

This may be the most pivotal position matchup in deciding the game. Against Green Bay, the 49ers pass rush failed to log a sack. Although Nick Bosa was generating pressure on Jordan Love, the unit in general barely made the Packers quarterback uncomfortable when dropping back. It’s been a frustrating few weeks watching the Niners lack of defensive line dominance.

Detroit’s starting five won’t give much to ease that feeling on Sunday. The Lions posted the 13th-ranked Pass Block and Run Block win rates (ESPN), as well as the 11th-highest pass block and 2nd-highest run block grades (PFF) this year. It’s a stout group.

The sliver of confidence for San Francisco lies with two of Detroit’s current starters listed on the injury report. Left guard Jonah Jackson has missed time already this season and exited the Divisional round game early and has subsequently had surgery for a meniscus ‘clean-up’. He is unlikely to play this weekend. Undrafted free agent Kayode Awosika filled the void against Tampa and allowed five pressures in 30 pass-blocking snaps.

Awosika’s pass block grade this year in spot time due to injuries is 46.7. The other injury worth monitoring is center Frank Ragnow, who reportedly dealt with a sprained ankle and sprained knee in their win over the Bucs. Ragnow, a 2023 2nd Team All-Pro selection, is expected to play through it, but if he isn’t 100%, the 49ers interior DL needs to take advantage of the ailments plaguing Detroit inside.

That is primarily because it will be difficult to win on the outside. The San Francisco defensive ends will have their work cut out for them getting to Jared Goff and in setting the edge against the run. Lions right tackle Penei Sewell was a first-team all-pro selection and owns PFF’s highest overall grade of any tackle in the NFL. Left tackle Taylor Decker also ranked in the top 20 of all tackles this season.

Sewell and Decker were the 6th and 7th, respectively, in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate among tackles. The final piece of the Lions unit is right guard Graham Glasgow, who is a mauler in the run game, finishing 2nd in ESPN’s run block win rate among interior lineman this season. However, Glasgow is susceptible in pass pro. His 39 pressures allowed is the sixth most by a guard this year. What this matchup boils down to is how much Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead can win against a vulnerable interior trio.

DET O COMBO vs SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

A big turning of the page this past year for Detroit was moving on from their skill players at this matchup level. Tight End T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift were traded away, and the Lions front office focused on addressing those positions in the draft. The results were terrific. Former Iowa standout Sam LaPorta was taken in the second round and became a 2nd team all-pro. He led all players at the position with 10 receiving touchdowns. LaPorta is a weapon in the passing game and has already formed a tight rapport with Jared Goff.

The Lions running game was one of the best in the NFL. They ranked 6th in EPA/ rush and 8th in running success rate. That rushing attack was not only spearheaded by their talented offensive line but also by the two-headed monster of David Montgomery and first-round pick Jahmyr Gibbs. In his first season in Detroit, Montgomery notched his second 1,000-yard season.

He ended the year in the top five in rushing touchdowns and rushing first downs. Gibbs was a celebrated selection from the Lions brass, who planned on using the former Alabama back all over the offense. Gibbs was only 55 yards short of logging his own 1,000-yard rushing campaign and was second in the NFL in 20+ yard runs.

His explosiveness was the perfect complement to this offense, and his usage in the passing game (third on the team in targets) shows how dynamic he can be in the Ben Johnson offense.

But these are still rookies. And the 49ers possess the best linebacker duo in football. I am not ready to concede this matchup to the Lions until they can prove they can do it against the best.

DET O SKILL vs SF SECONDARY

Advantage: DET

Like San Francisco, Detroit’s passing game is a well-oiled machine with plenty of options for attacking opponents. It starts with Jared Goff, who has been embraced by the blue-collar city as a franchise leader who has overcome the “bust” tag and helped lift the Lions to their first playoff victory in over three decades.

Although Goff may get placed in the same box as Brock Purdy, there are some striking differences to their game. Primarily, Goff does not handle pressure as well as Purdy. The 49ers know that the key to this game is generating that pressure early and often.

Goff’s play on the road compared to at home should also be concerning for Detroit. In 2023 Goff posted the following:

ESPN

Jared Goff had a good season. He has brought the Lions back to relevancy and rejuvenated his career. But part of him is still the same player that the Rams wanted to move on from after their Super Bowl against New England.

Detroit’s weapons are possibly a better group than what Goff had in Los Angeles, however. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was awarded first-team all-pro after ranking third in the league in catches and receiving yards and fourth in touchdowns. St. Brown is a problem with the ball in his hands, and his 668 yards after the catch this season was second only to Ceedee Lamb.

If the Niners secondary showcases some of the poor tackling we saw a week ago, St. Brown could have a big day. The Lions do a great job scheming the former fifth-rounder open on lots of crossers, digs, and routes across the middle, so Fred Warner will have to be on high alert.

Although there are some solid pieces around St. Brown, no other receiver really poses a consistent threat in winning one-on-one. Josh Reynolds (limited in practice, ribs) has made plays throughout the season but is an afterthought behind St. Brown, LaPorta, and even Gibbs.

Former first-rounder Jameson Williams does test defenses vertically but had a 17.2% drop percentage, the worst rate on the team. For the San Francisco secondary, this matchup will be about being more prepared for the scheme than the players. If the pressure can’t get to Goff, it could be a long day for the Niners’ defensive backs.