The Lions are now 5-0 for the first time since some year no one remembers (sorry aged readers). This week, they have a short week for their second game of a three-game homestand and face a 4-1 49ers teams that could have very well been the third undefeated team in the NFL. Their lone loss was to the Cowboys in overtime, after holding a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. As noted by a San Franciscan friend of mine, the two teams face each other with a combined record of 9-1, while last year, at this time, the two teams were a combined 1-9. The Lions are four-point favorites in this highly anticipated game. Let's go to the charts.
Lions Pass Offense (4th) vs. 49ers Pass Defense (23rd)
This may be an unpopular opinion, but lately, Matthew Stafford has been struggling with his accuracy. Many have chalked it up to early game jitters, or his homecoming to Texas, but let's not forget that Stafford had accuracy issues coming out of college as well. Now, don't get me wrong, he is still easily the best quarterback the Lions have ever had during my lifetime, but given how he was tearing it up in the preseason, it's a little disappointing to see him miss some throws (by a lot, at times) when a receiver is visibly open.
Still, most of his stats remain outstanding. The Lions are sixth in passer rating, third in passing TDs, 10th in completion percentage, and third in sacks allowed. Speaking of which, the offensive line played phenomenally against the Bears on Monday night and made Julius Peppers as close to irrelevant as humanly possible. A follow-up performance against the Niners could convince many that the line is more than average.
*Romo and Kitna combined
The 49ers passing defense is a bit of an enigma. Based on the chart, they haven't played two solid games (or two poor games) in a row. In two games (Bengals and Bucs) they held opponents well under their averages, and in two other games (Cowboys and Eagles) opponents crushed their averages. In the opener against the Seahawks, Seattle performed just under their averages in yards and passer rating. In other words, based on the chart the Niners have a slightly above-average passing defense.
Further statistics corroborate this hypothesis. San Francisco ranks 12th in yards per attempt, 11th in sacks, and 11th in completion percentage allowed but fourth in passer rating allowed and third in interceptions. It's clear that they are better than their 23rd ranking suggests (based on yards allowed per game). But this aspect of the Niner defense isn't unbeatable. Though no team has surpassed 100 in passer rating, when the Niners have faced good passing attacks (see Eagles and Cowboys), they've given up plenty of yards and good passer ratings. Detroit undoubtedly has a good passing attack and gets the small advantage here. Lions +1.5.
Lions Run Offense (24th) vs. 49ers Run Defense (4th)
There was absolutely nothing more satisfying than watching Jahvid Best have a career night on the ground on Monday. Best was making some beautiful cuts on Monday and the offensive line was creating massive cut-back lanes. But, facing reality, the Bears actually have one of the worst rushing defenses in the league. The Lions will need to play like that on a consistent basis to earn the respect of their opponents.
Aaaaand holy crap. The Niners bolster one of the best rush defenses in the league by almost any measurable you look at. As you can see, their chart is nearly flawless, with only the Bengals reaching their season average in yards per carry against the Niners. Their 3.6 yards per carry allowed ranks them seventh. They've also only allowed one rush of over 20 yards (and none of 40+), something only three other teams have accomplished (the other three teams have only played four games).
It's clear who has the advantage here. The Niners have all the advantages in the statistical realm and I haven't even mentioned Patrick Willis, the Pro Bowl linebacker who ranks 12th in tackles in the NFL. But like I say and we see every week, this offense can be successful without a solid rushing game. This matchup clearly favors San Francisco, but it's unlikely to significantly affect the outcome of the game. 49ers +1.
49ers Pass Offense (29th) vs. Lions Pass Defense (12th)
Don't be fooled by the 49ers 29th ranking; Alex Smith is having himself a year. Don't believe me? Take a look at this:
Pictures Courtesy of NFL.com
Now, obviously, the 49er passing attack isn't as explosive as Detroit, but Smith is doing what he is being asked of effectively and efficiently. But as I hinted at, the dynamic numbers of the Niners passing game are not that impressive. They've only had 16 plays of 20+ yards through the air (13th) and only one of 40+ yards (T-last). This is a passing offense that relies heavily on short passes, as tight end Vernon Davis leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
The Lions' 12th ranking is solid, but this chart is not. They've only held one opponent below their season average in yards and two in passer rating. In good news, the Lions rank seventh in passer rating allowed, but when you take into account that the Lions have not faced a team with a rating above 90, it may not be all that impressive. I think it's fair to say that, despite their seven interceptions on the year (T-fourth), the Lions are likely a slightly below average passing defense.
There is one more key to this matchup that I failed to mention: pass rush. The 49ers have allowed 14 sacks (24th) and we all know how dangerous the Detroit defensive line is, especially with Nick Fairley in the mix now. I would say the pressure is likely to force Smith into a mistake or two, but the man has only two turnovers on the year. I don't expect a huge day from Smith, but an effective one. 49ers +1.
49ers Run Offense (12th) vs. Lions Run Defense (18th)
Frank Gore had a very slow start to the year, but he has been outstanding in the past two weeks, averaging 126.0 yards and 7.2 a carry in those games. It's a little tough to tell which is the real rushing attack for the Niners, but the Eagles and Bucs don't have great defenses. Still, Gore has enough of a resume to warrant at least some worry among Lions fans. I consider the San Francisco running attack, at the very least, average.
The Lions, however, are pretty clearly below average in stopping the run. The Lions' front four specialize in rushing the passer, which makes the Lions somewhat vulnerable in the running game. I thought MLive had a very interesting article detailing Jim Schwartz's opinion of the Lions run defense. For those with link-ophobia, Schwartz basically says that while he's not happy with where they're at, the Lions' secondary and linebackers have done a great job tackling and limiting plays.
Overall, however, the Lions have given up plenty of yards, and with a run-heavy offense coming to town, this will clearly be an important matchup. The Niners have the advantage, but not large enough to sway the outcome of the game by much. Niners +0.5.
It pains me to write this, given how fun the ride has been, but the 49ers come out with a +1 advantage. San Francisco likely has the best defense the Lions have faced thus far, and their offense is playing better than it has in several years. This will be a low-scoring display of solid defenses. The Niners also have a great special teams threat in Ted Ginn Jr., who has already returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown. His ability to change the field-position battle may be the key in this game.
In order for the Lions to win this game they must first stop Gore. Though Smith has been solid this year, he has not really been asked upon to win a game for the Niners this season*. Stafford also needs to play a consistent four quarters and avoid making a bad decision. Unfortunately, I don't see all of the cards falling in the right place like they have all season. Lions lose a squeaker: 49ers 20, Lions 17.
*with possible exception to their comeback win at Philly, though he still didn't throw for 300 yards in that game