1. Jared Goff has shut up the haters with his play over the last year and a half. Detroit has put all the pieces around Goff to help him be successful as well. Are there still concerns from Lions fans about Goff’s game and how he handles adversity and/or pressure, as was the case in his final year with the Rams?
Jared Goff has endeared himself to this fanbase in a way that couldn’t have possibly been imagined or expected back when he was acquired in 2021, especially under the circumstances – he was replacing the greatest quarterback in the franchise’s history. Fast forward two years, and he’s getting his name chanted like a war hymn before playoff games by a fanbase that has come to embrace him as the guy “good enough for Detroit.”
Much like any other quarterback around the league, Goff isn’t at his best under pressure, and when a team is able to compromise a pocket with interior pressure, that’s when things can get real troublesome – and with left guard Jonah Jackson out for this game, and center Frank Ragnow banged up, there’s reason for concern this week against the likes of Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave.
Goff has certainly looked improved against the blitz since that final season with the Los Angeles Rams, but that won’t seem to figure into this matchup much since the 49ers own one of the lowest blitz rates in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference (18.0%, 30th). Regardless, he has developed into a more confident quarterback–especially at the line of scrimmage when it comes to diagnosing coverages – since he and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson worked together to tailor this offense to Goff’s strengths.
2. Detroit have hit on plenty of draft picks the last few seasons since the arrival of GM Brad Holmes, including rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who sealed the divisional round victory over the Bucs. In addition to Gibbs, who are some of the young players on this Lions roster that have helped the team get to the NFCCG but maybe aren’t getting as much national attention?
Brian Branch might be the best answer to your question since he’s a slot cornerback for a defense that hasn’t fared particularly well against the pass as a whole, but he’s been one of the few bright spots among this Lions secondary. Branch’s knack for playmaking seems well beyond his years, but that isn’t much of a surprise for a guy who took over the “star” position responsibilities as a true sophomore at Alabama, lining up in the slot and playing in the box–and excelling at both.
And that much has been true in his rookie season: Branch finished the regular season t-9th in receiving yards per snap (1.04) and 12th in passer rating allowed (97.2) among slot cornerbacks with at least 200 coverage snaps, an impressive debut in coverage for a rookie.
Combine those numbers with the impact he’s had as a run defender–Branch’s “stop” rate (7.8%) per PFF was the top mark for cornerbacks with at least 200 run defense snaps–and as a pass rusher–his eight pressures were t-4th among corners–and it’s clear how Branch emerged as the Lions most important defensive player not named Aidan Hutchinson in 2023.
3. The Lions’ defense has been stout against the run, but the secondary has had its fair share of struggles. What concerns you most about facing the 49ers passing attack and how do you think DC Aaron Glenn can create ways to knock the San Francisco offense out of rhythm?
Going back to the midway point of last season, this Lions run defense has been a shutdown unit, and this season, Detroit boasts the best run defense in the NFL, according to DVOA. It hasn’t been by circumstance or situation–they’ve just been a stout group against the run. But that’s about all this group can hang their hat on when it comes to that side of the ball. Detroit’s issues in defending the pass start upfront because, outside of Hutchinson, the Lions don’t have a player who can consistently win their one-on-one matchups.
Detroit may have piled up the pressures this season according to wherever you look (354 pressures per PFF, 187 per PFR), but beyond Hutchinson’s 101 pressures per PFF, the Lions’ most disruptive defenders were Alim McNeill, John Cominsky, and Alex Anzalone (34, 29, and 25 pressures respectively).
If not for Glenn dialing up the blitzing in the second half of the season (28.7%, 11th), it’s hard to imagine how this defense would have been anything but a net negative for this team. But with the manufactured pressure from Glenn, he’s done a really admirable job of squeezing the most out of this defense–and that’s exactly why you see him getting so much consideration for head coaching gigs around the league despite the numbers the Lions are posting on defense.
From there, the Lions lack talent at outside cornerback, and it’s pretty disappointing considering how much general manager Brad Holmes invested in overhauling that group last offseason. Cam Sutton has been worse than advertised after signing a three-year, $33 million deal, and former 49er Emmanuel Moseley played just two snaps before tearing his ACL for the second straight season, so it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Holmes’ part.
Starting opposite Sutton is Kindle Vildor, a player the Lions signed after Week 13, so that should tell you everything you need to know about how desperate things got for Detroit at the position. Deebo Samuel is obviously a great talent and one of the most versatile offensive weapons in football, but Brandon Aiyuk’s ability to stretch the field with that 14.3 aDOT and his ridiculously productive efficiency (3.04 yards per route run) means he’s primed and ready to be the next to take advantage of this under-manned secondary.
4. Detroit has won its first playoff game since the ‘90s, and it was awesome to see the fans’ reactions at Ford Field. Is there some level of “just happy to be here” being felt by the fan base, and does the fact that the team has to travel to Santa Clara for this game hinder expectations for their Super Bowl bid?
I feel like we can find ourselves living in our own bubbles every once in a while, given the age we live in, so it’s tough for me to say how the fanbase is feeling as a whole, but I think I can say this definitively: Lions fans sure could get used to this feeling they’re experiencing with their football team playing deep in January, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t soaking in every moment of this playoff run.
Even if some do feel like this season is being played with house money as the Lions make the trip to Santa Clara, they’re holding onto hope that this could be the moment they’ve been waiting for – that it could be the moment the people that came before them were waiting for all their football-watching lives were waiting for. People were bringing urns with loved one’s ashes into Ford Field the past couple of weeks. The General Motors plant my dad works at in Flint is bumping the start of third shift to make room for them to watch the Lions game. This is very, very different.
Other sports have had their moments, and this city appreciates greatness. They took on the moniker of Hockeytown with the Red Wings run in the 90s through the new millennium. They embraced the “Bad Boys” and “Goin’ to Work” Pistons teams that felt like a reflection of the city’s blue collar work ethic and attitude. Many summers have belonged to the Tigers, too. But nothing in my 32 years has felt or looked like this moment right here, and no one wants to see this ride come to an end.odd
5. DraftKings Sportsbook believes it will be an offensive affair, setting the total line at 51.0. Do you expect the over to hit, and how do you see the game unfolding?
Absolutely, and even before seeing this tweet from Benjamin Solak, it felt like this had the potential to be a shootout. The 49ers could score all over the Lions defense, and they’re built to do a ton of it considering how bleak things have looked on the defensive side of the ball for Detroit, but that offense–hell, even the special teams–they’re not leaving Santa Clara without throwing absolutely everything and the kitchen sink at the Niners.
Regardless of how things turn out on Sunday, the Lions are building something really special that’s built to last, and the Niners, no pun intended, will continue to remain the gold standard in the conference. This won’t be the last time these two teams meet with so much at stake, and that’s worth the price of admission for however this game turns out.