Alex Smith

49ers’ biggest test (so far): the Detroit Lions

At first glance, these two teams seem like they arrived at this point in wildly different ways. The Detroit Lions are 5-0, led by Calvin “Evil Transformer Leader” Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. The 49ers are 4-1, led by Jim Harbaugh.

How else are these teams similar, other than their surprisingly good win/loss records after going 6-10 in 2010? Both squads are filled with opportunistic defenders and offenses that do a pretty good job of taking care of the ball. The Niners (+10) are second to Buffalo (+11) in turnover margin, with Detroit not far behind (tied for third at +7 with Green Bay and Baltimore). Both the Lions and 49ers have registered 12 sacks through five games. Detroit allows 339.2 ypg on defense, San Francisco allows 340.8 ypg (the Niners have allowed slightly fewer points so far, with opponents scoring 78 points compared to 89 against Detroit).

Still, Detroit’s a very unique team with a ton of speed — even though they aren’t as young as people think (the Lions are the 4th-oldest team in the NFL, while the Niners are the 9th-youngest). Here are four observations after watching last night’s MNF game on the challenges the Lions present, and how the 49ers might respond.

1. Jahvid Best is fast as hell, but he isn’t a gimmick.

Anyone who was watching Best take that crazy fall on his neck against Oregon St. back in 2009 couldn’t help but love it when he busted through the line and outran everyone with ease last night against the Bears for 88 yards and the score. Best has gone from an elite track star from Richmond, CA to sixth in the NFL this season in yards from scrimmage (567).

Possible 49ers strategy: The Niners’ defense has been good at stopping the run for what seems like forever, and might be the best at covering runs to the outside and short passes (especially screens) in the league. But Best is the fastest guy the 49ers have faced this year, a guy who possesses even more speed than Felix Jones. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will keep an eye on Best all day; luckily Stafford isn’t a threat to leave the pocket so Best can be their singular focus.

2. Megatron is big and fast and oh crap the Niners are screwed…

The 49ers have did a great job containing Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers’ passing offense, but Johnson is FAR superior to Mike Williams. Carlos Rogers has almost reached savior status as a free agent pickup, but Johnson beats double, even triple teams.

Possible 49ers strategy: Darryl Johnston gave credit where it was due on Sunday when he mentioned how much film the Niners must have watched on Tampa Bay’s passing routes after Rogers jumped one, grabbed an INT and took it to the house. One would have to assume the 49ers will need more than some fancy tricks to stop Johnson, so like most teams throughout the rest of the season they’ll probably leave Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler relatively alone and double Johnson most of the game. Megatron will probably still end up with at least 100 yards and a score, but if the 49ers hold tight elsewhere they can keep the game close enough to give themselves a chance.

3. The D-line is Suhperhuman (sorry) and whipped the Bears on MNF.

Suh demands double teams, leading to easier pass rushing opportunities for guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril (Levigne). The 49ers have had trouble with speed rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Babin, but then again every team does…

Possible 49ers strategy: The Niners’ offensive line has looked good enough over the past game and a half that it seems likely they’ll handle the Lions’ line better than the Bears did. They couldn’t do much worse, although the officials were a little flag-happy on Monday night and that hurt the Bears a bit, putting their linemen even more on the defensive. While Suh has this reputation for ripping old-growth redwoods out of the ground by the roots with his bare hands, the Lions can definitely be run on, allowing 4.8 ypc. With a shortage of healthy wide receivers (the 49ers signed ex-Packers wideout Brett Swain today), look for another relatively conservative offensive attack (at least early), with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter combining for close to 30 carries.

4. Ford Field is a dome and the Lions’ bandwagon is full.

The Bears were whistled for several false starts, and the Lions’ undefeated record means the crowd will only be louder when San Francisco comes in.

Possible 49ers strategy: Last time the Niners were worried about crowd noise they reportedly bumped the Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It” before heading to Cincinnati, where Paul Brown Stadium ended up being half full. Nice song choice, especially since the news had just come out that someone at Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson’s house accepted a shipment containing a kilogram of weed. Expect the 49ers to turn some Eminem up full blast this week in preparation for their voyage to Detroit. I recommend this tune, or maybe this little ditty, but I’m sure Harbaugh has his own favorites.


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