Two of the NFL’s best emerging franchises, 49ers and Lions, will be in the national spotlight on Sunday Night Football. The game at Candlestick Park will be the first of five primetime games San Francisco will play this season. Everyone remembers the battle last season, with the 49ers winning a back and forth game after being down to the Lions in the fourth quarter. And who can forget the handshake at midfield after the game between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz? After the game Sunday night, the handshake between the coaches will be the most watched in all of sports.
In the season opener the Lions had to rally from being down seven points in the fourth-quarter to a surprisingly tough Rams team. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw the winning touchdown to running back Kevin Smith with 10 seconds left in the game. The 49ers had a close, but dominate win over the Packers in Green Bay that gave them momentum and confidence to beat any team heading into their home opener. While the game will be close throughout, the 49ers are going to show a national TV audience why they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with a win over the Lions.
To preview the game, here are five things to watch out for:
Claim of Best in NFC
The winner of Sunday’s night’s game will enter week 3 with a 2-0 record and will be able to claim they are best in the NFC. Yes, the New York Giants are defending champs, but they lost in week one at home against a division rival. The other top teams in the NFC at the start of the season, Saints and Packers, lost their first games which were both at home. If the 49ers pull out the victory, they will have beaten two of the NFC’s top teams, with one victory on the road. If the Lions win they will have a 2-0 record and be able to claim a road victory over the 49ers, who were 7-1 at home last season. Cleary, whoever comes out on top will be the best of the NFC and a Super Bowl favorite heading into week 3.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is a major part of the Lions offense and defenses focus in on stopping him with mostly little success. The 49ers have a talented secondary that showed last week they can handle covering multiple receiving threats. Still, Megatron is the best WR in the NFL and he will get seven or eight receptions for just over 100 yards against the 49ers. But the key will be stopping him from reaching the end zone after the catch. This will likely mean double teaming Johnson and throwing different coverage’s and personnel at him during the game. The Lions love to lineup Johnson on both sides of the field, so cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown will both be covering him, as oppose to one shadowing him.
Focusing all of your attention on Megatron is a mistake as the Lions have plenty of other weapons they can use against the 49ers. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will have a busy day covering tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Both are big targets with great hands and pose matchup problems. The Lions also have wide receiver Nate Burleson who is capable of big plays if left open.
Lions Hurting Secondary
Heading into Sunday’s game the Lions have two starting defensive backs listed as doubtful and one out for the game. The Lions’ secondary will be without cornerback Dwight Bentley who suffered a concussion in the season opener and has not practiced all week. The Lions could also be missing cornerback Chris Houston (ankle) and safety Louis Delmas (knee) who have been limited in practice the past week. With a thin secondary, Alex Smith will be able to take advantage of Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and his new receivers being open most of the game. Smith could have his third 300-yard game of his career.
49ers Nearing Turnover-Free Record
The last the time San Francisco committed a turnover dates back to last season on Thanksgiving night in the Harbaugh Brothers Bowl. Alex Smith, who has not thrown an interception in 185 consecutive regular-season passes, threw his last INT in the game against the Ravens. The 49ers have not committed a turnover in the last six games since and are one game away from tying the NFL record. In 2010, the Patriots set the record by not committing a turnover in seven consecutive games.
San Francisco’s offense committed an NFL-low 10 turnovers and led the league with a plus-28 in turnover differential last season. The last time the offense fumbled the football was in week 9 when tight end Vernon Davis lost the football after catching a pass, a streak of 36 quarters without losing a fumble.
The 49ers turnover-free streak has a lot to do with Alex Smith protecting the football and making sound decisions when passing. He is doing it in not as a game manager, but as a franchise quarterback who led a balanced and effective offense in the win over the Packers. Smith looked more like the reigning MVP than Aaron Rodgers. With the secondary hurting for the Lions and how well the 49ers protect the football when running with it, we can expect them to tie the record for most games without a turnover.
Pressuring Matthew Stafford
There was a reason why Aaron Rodgers led the Packers in rushing with five carries for 27 yards in the loss to the 49ers: constant pressure on the quarterback that took him out of the pocket and out of rhythm. The 49ers pass rushing attack will apply this same strategy to the Lions offense making Stafford uncomfortable with pressure on the outside from linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. An important aspect of stopping the Lions passing offense is the 49ers deploying their nickel and dime packages as successful they did last week. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called a lot of slot defender blitzes against the Packers, but against the Lions that could mean Megatron being covered one-on-one which he would take advantage of.