On Sunday, the Detroit Lions will host the true surprise team of the early 2011 season: the San Francisco 49ers. San Fran comes into this game scorching hot after dismantling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home by a score of 48-3. They feature one of the best offenses in the young NFL season, ranking seventh in the league in points scored with 28.4 points per game, a steady run game that has been there since Frank Gore was drafted in 2005, and the third highest rated passer in the NFL thus far in Alex Smith. Of course, a lot of the early offensive success can be attributed to the hiring of former Stanford head coach and Wolverines and Lions quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
For those that do not know or do not recall, Jim Harbaugh was one of the greatest quarterbacks in the University of Michigan’s football history. He is still the fifth in Michigan history in passing yards (just ahead of Tom Brady), sixth in completions (behind Brady), and eighth in touchdown passes, ahead of current quarterback Denard Robinson. After his successful career at Michigan, he was drafted with the 26th pick in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He ended up spending seven seasons with the Bears but never really materialized into what the Bears hoped he would be.
Harbaugh ended up signing with the Colts after the ’93 season, and he was their starter until 1998, when they drafted Peyton Manning. He spent the latter years of his career with the Ravens, Chargers, Lions and Panthers. After a few assistant coaching gigs at Western Kentucky and the Raiders, Harbaugh got his first big coaching job with the University of San Diego back in 2004. In his three seasons there, he led the team to an 11-1 record twice and a 7-4 record in his first season, which warranted him the Stanford job back in 2007. In his first two seasons with the Cardinal, Harbaugh was 4-8 and 5-7 before leading them to an 8-5 campaign in 2009 and a 12-1 season last year, after which he joined the 49ers.
Scheme-wise, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers run a pretty standard West Coast Offense with a few bells and whistles attached to it. The key difference from a standard WCO and the Niners is that Harbaugh likes to use his tight ends in every way possible, much like he did at Stanford. That, of course, is not a bad idea at all when you have Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker at the tight end position. Davis physically is the tight end version of Calvin Johnson, and Walker is a very solid complementary piece.
The other key difference between what the 49ers West Coast and the rest of them is that the Niners like to take advantage of their quarterback’s athleticism. Not in the same manner as the Eagles with Michael Vick, but Harbaugh tends to roll out his quarterbacks so that he only has to deal with reading half of the field. Doing so simplifies the play for the quarterback and also buys him extra time in the process. How well Alex Smith can operate on these types of plays will end up being a key factor against a Lions team that generates so much pressure.
In the following play (which can be watched here at the 0:07 mark), you can see the 49ers utilizing a two-tight end set with both Walker (who is lined up in the slot on the right side) and Davis on the field at the same time. One would think that the faster Davis would be in the slot, but Walker is actually a pretty solid route runner and has decent speed. The Bucs, in their Tampa-2, bring a four-man rush while dropping seven in coverage, using linebackers to cover both tight ends with safety help up top. Even then, Walker manages to beat the coverage and gets in the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown.
I believe the biggest key to this game will be whether or not the Lions can stop the 49ers rushing attack. The Niners are very much so a run-heavy offense, ranking sixth in the NFL in rushing attempts while ranking dead last in the league in passing attempts. Overall, they have run the ball 53 percent of the time this season and have controlled the clock by holding on to the ball for just over 31 minutes, which ranks them eighth in the league for time of possession. All of this also means that the Lions offense will need to capitalize on any possessions that they do get because the Niners will not give them as many opportunities as the Vikings, Cowboys or Bears did.
The good thing for the Lions is that the 49ers have only averaged four yards per run just like them, which means they haven’t been super successful running the ball. It is still a rushing attack that needs to be respected, but it can be stopped by a Lions run D that has only allowed one 100-yard rusher so far this season. The other key stat to keep in mind that that the 49ers have allowed 14 sacks so far this season (tied for eighth most in the league) despite passing the least of any team in the league. All of that could very well mean that the 49ers offensive line hasn’t been nearly as good as they need to be.
All in all, the Niners offense reminds me a lot of the Vikings: a unit with a great running back, a mobile quarterback with two talented tight ends, no great receiving threats, and a suspect offensive line. With that said, remember that the Vikings offense put up 23 points against the Lions in Week 3, so the 49ers definitely have the necessary pieces to beat Lions on the road. However, I like the Lions chances at home, and I think they will hold the San Francisco offense under 20 points.