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The Honolulu Blueprint: 10 keys to a Lions victory over the 49ers in NFC Championship

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the 2023-24 NFC Championship game.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers will face off in the NFC Championship game with the winner moving on to the Super Bowl. The Lions opened the week as underdogs to the 49ers and you can check out the updated odds, as well as player prop odds, for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

These teams feature two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, but if the Lions want to score more points than their opponent, then they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

49ers’ base schemes

Shanahan’s offense:

While the 49ers have Chris Foerster and Klint Kubiak tabbed as co-offensive coordinators, this offense is designed and run by head coach Kyle Shanahan. The son of legendary coach Mike Shanahan has adopted a lot of his father’s offensive philosophies—including West Coast influences and an outside zone rushing attack—but Kyle has expanded on this base of ideas to create one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.

Like most West Coast offenses, Shanahan’s offense uses pre-snap motion, shifts, and play-action to draw the defense's eyes and expose their coverage. Once the play is underway, quarterback rollouts/sprints and heavy outside zone rushing concepts are utilized to create misdirection.

Another unique trait of San Francisco’s offense is, because of their skill players, they deploy an unusual balance of personnel groupings. While 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) is still the most commonly used, they also incorporate higher than normal levels of 21 personnel and 12 personnel.

Wilks 4-2-5 defense:

When DeMeco Ryans left for the Houston Texans’ head coaching job this past offseason, the 49ers turned to Steve Wilks, who was most recently the interim head coach for the Carolina Panthers. While Wilks is notoriously a heavy blitzer, he has backed off considerably in San Francisco. On the season, they blitz just 18% of the time, third-fewest in the league. Essentially, the 49ers believe that they have enough talent on their defensive line to simply rush four and get pressure—and honestly, they’re right.

At the linebacker level, they start two—like most NFL teams—but like Detroit, they will incorporate a third a fair amount of the time. Unlike the Lions (who use their third linebacker in pass rushing spots) the 49ers keep their third linebacker in coverage, matching up with tight ends, running backs, and even slot receivers.

In the secondary, the 49ers use a lot of zone coverages, roughly 77-80% of the time, which puts them close to the top 10 range. Their main two corners are Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir, with Ward being in the CB1 role, and Lenoir alternating between the outside and in the slot in three corner sets.

Key 1: Keep focus on stopping the run

While the 49ers passing attack is one of the most efficient in the NFL (DVOA: 1), they pass the ball less than 52% of the time, the third-fewest in the NFL. The inverse of that means they run the ball over 48% of the time, third-most in the League. But unlike some of the teams the Lions have played of late, the 49ers don’t just rush to try and control the clock, they run the ball because they’re also highly efficient at that as well.

“You’ve got to stop the run because if you don’t, they’ll rush for 250 on you and then they won’t even worry about passing,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said earlier this week. “Everything has to start there.”

But that’s easier said than done of course, because misdirection is the key staple on Shanahan’s offense.

“Shanahan does an unbelievable job,” Campbell continued. “He’s going to work one side and make you overreact and then he counters off of it, and then he play passes off of it, and works the middle of the field. You’ve got your hands full in both regards. And (49ers QB Brock) Purdy does a hell of a job. They throw a lot of daggers middle of the field and he does a hell of a job with touch, timing, rhythm, but we have to stop this run game. It just has to start there. As much as you can, you have to try to make this team one-dimensional and that’s not easy to do.”

At the forefront of their rushing attack is Christian McCaffrey (first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl), who has rushed for 1459 yards this season, giving him an average of 91.2 rushing yards per game.

“I mean it’s physical,” Campbell said about the 49ers run game. “There’s nothing easy about what they do. And then when you have a back like McCaffrey—we know the athlete that he is—but he’s got really good vision. He understands the blocking scheme. He understands what they’re trying to do, he understands, ‘I’ve got to pull this MIKE all the way to this block, the MIKE linebacker before I put my foot in the ground. And if I do that, I’ll find the crease back here, and then the rest is up to him, he’s on the safety.’”

While it seems like a daunting task to shut down McCaffrey, the Lions have the personnel and philosophy to accomplish it. Detroit finished the season with the No. 1 run defense in the NFL per DVOA, and they did not allow a running back to rush for 70 yards on them in any single game.

McCaffrey has rushed for over 70 yards in 12 games this season, and in the five games McCaffrey was held under 70 rushing yards, the 49ers lost three of them.

Simply put: if you slow down the 49ers rushing attack, you’ll have a chance to beat them.

Key 2: Deliver hits and make your tackles

McCaffrey's athleticism makes him incredibly difficult to tackle and he leads the NFL in yards after contact with 573 yards. As a team, they have amassed 962 yards, which lands them fourth most in the NFL this season. The 49ers' ability to extend plays adds to their explosivity, meaning the Lions will need to continue to be highly efficient with their tackling.

“Yeah, we’re disruptive. We’re disruptive, we’re aggressive and we hit,” Campbell said of his defense. “And that, to me, has got to be what we’re about. Those are the principles.”

The Lions are middle of the road when it comes to tackling efficiency but their zone coverage keeps things in front of them and their aggressive nature leads to big hits, which does have a tendency to wear teams down.

“It’ll pay dividends by the time you hit the fourth quarter and I think that’s what we’re doing,” Campbell said. “I think it is a salty group. They play hard, they’re pretty sound and we’re competitive.”

Because the Lions coverage issues have been leaky down the stretch, they’ve needed to tight things up in other areas, and it has led to more creativity in scheme and improved technique.

“We’re starting to figure out some of our better pressure players, guys that can do that on the perimeter,” Campbell said. “And I think you see our confidence going up. It’s really gone up over the last six weeks. We started hot and then we just kind of hit a rough patch and then we came through it and we’re on the uptick right now.”

Key 3: Set Hutchinson up for success

While the 49ers’ skill players are elite, their offensive line has not been as dominant as they have been in previous seasons. As always left tackle Trent Williams has been sensational, but beyond him, there are vulnerabilities, most notably starting right tackle Colton McKivitz, who has allowed 52 pressures (fifth most in the NFL) and nine sacks on the season (fourth most).

After finishing 2022 as the sixth-best offensive line per PFF, this season they landed at 21 in their rankings. As pass blockers, they grade out with a PFF pass-blocking efficiency rate in the bottom 10 in the NFL, giving up 191 pressures on 581 dropbacks (32.8%).

When pressured, Purdy’s completion percentage drops from 76.2% to 54.7%, and his touchdown:interception ratio drops from 21:5 (when kept clean) to 11:6 (when pressured).

Meanwhile, Lions Aidan Hutchinson has a league-leading 118 pressures (regular season and playoffs, per PFF) and has been on a tear. Over the last four weeks, he has 31 pressures and eight sacks. And in this game, he’ll likely line up opposite McKivitz.

If the Lions are going to be able to disrupt Purdy, the majority of that responsibility is going to fall on Hutchinson.

Key 4: Keep them at 24 points or under

24 is the magic number in this game when it comes to points.

Both offenses average around 28 points scored per game, while Detroit has allowed an average of 23.2 points per game on the season. In each of the Lions' two playoff games, they’ve been right at that average, allowing 23 points to both the Rams and Buccaneers, while the 49ers managed to score 24 points in their single playoff win (over the Packers).

The Lions' defense has been shedding yards for quite a while now, but they’ve been able to keep opponents' scores low by creating pressures and sacks, as well as forcing turnovers.

Key 5: Win the turnover battle

Over the last five weeks, the Lions have turned the ball over three times, yet their defense has forced 10 turnovers for a +7 margin. The Lions were 4-1 over that span, with the only loss coming in controversial fashion in Dallas.

On the season, the 49ers have done a solid job (+12 in turnover margin), but in San Francisco’s four losses this season (excluding the Week 18 game against the Rams when they rested their starters), they were -9 in turnovers (13 turnovers vs. 4 forced) including nine of Purdy’s 11 interceptions on the season.

Key 6: Run. The. Damn. Ball.

If the 49ers have a weak spot, it’s their run defense.

As Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his On Paper preview of this game, a lot of San Francisco’s statistical success against the run is because they have faced the fewest rushing attempts in the league, and the advanced statistics illustrate some vulnerability.

The 49ers rank:
- 14th in yards per carry allowed (4.1)
- 15th in DVOA
- 26th in EPA
- 24th in success rate
- 29th in power success rate

While the 49ers offense is impressively ranked fourth in yards after contact (962), the Lions sit at the top of the list with 1061 yards accredited to them. McCaffrey (573 YAC) basically runs the backfield as the solo back in San Francisco, but the Lions duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs has been a top five dominating pair all season. Together, they have a combined 911 YAC, each averaging over 2.5 YAC per rushing attempt.

While Montgomery has been a steady force all season, it’s been Gibbs improved play over the second half of the season that has helped the Lions reach new levels.

“Yeah, he’s improved in everything. I mean, I think you can see that,” Campbell said. “His protection has improved [...] I think you see he’s getting better in the pass game out of the backfield. [...] His running ability, his vision, he’s just, to me, he really is a complete back that’s continued to develop. But really, since the—I felt like the (week) we played the Ravens early in the year and that’s when you felt like, ‘Alright, the light’s coming on.’ And he’s just, every week, gotten better, and better, and better. So, he’s playing at a high level right now.”

Key 7: Pin and Pull, Traps-and-Whams

The 49ers have been particularly vulnerable outside the tackle box as their edge defenders (most notably Chase Young) have struggled to set the edge and second-level defenders haven’t done a good job of filling those gaps. As a result, teams have been targeting this area with their runs.

Against the Packers last week, Green Bay running back Aaron Jones targeted the edges and ran for 108 yards on 18 carries (6.0 yards per attempt). The philosophy that was most successful was a pin-and-pull blocking technique, where a skill player crashes down and pins the edge, while an offensive lineman pulls outside the tackle box and seals a run lane. ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky did a nice job breaking down why this approach worked in the video below:

In order to execute this concept, you need several things to be in place and the Lions have all of them. They use the proper formations, have the skill players that can execute blocks, athletic offensive linemen to pull, and speed backs to get outside quickly.

With the 49ers aggressive front, you will also likely see the Lions incorporate some trap blocks from their offensive linemen (similar to pull blocks, but inside) and wham blocks from their tight ends (similar to pin blocks) in order to use the momentum from the defensive front to take them out of the play—thus opening gaps for their backs.

Key 8: Stay aggressive on third down

The 49ers commit around six penalties a game (23rd in the NFL) but they’re dead last in yardage given up due to penalties with an average of 56.4 yards on penalties per game. That’s due to the types of penalties they commit and is part of the sacrifice they make to stay aggressive.

Against the Packers, the 49ers committed six penalties and gave up 83 yards. But it wasn’t just the yardage that hurt them, it was that timing of when they took the penalties. Twice on third-and-long, the Packers took deep shots on the 49ers, both resulting in pass interference penalties and a new set of downs.

The lesson here is: if you get in a tough spot, don’t be afraid to take a shot downfield because the 49ers have been overly aggressive and committed bad penalties, which has extended their opponents’ drives.

Key 9: Jared Goff needs to deliver in the 4th quarter

There is no hotter quarterback in the fourth quarter than Jared Goff, as pointed out by Kay Adams on her weekly show “Up and Adams”:

Goff’s masterful play with the game on the line has been the difference in each of the Lions’ last two playoff wins, as he has risen to the pressure and exceeded expectations. Goff has looked more comfortable, confident, poised, and his teammates have rallied behind him.

At just 29 years of age (his birthday is in October), Goff is literally playing the best football of his career and is on the precipice of a contract extension this offseason. The Lions fans have rallied behind him and the organization appears to have their quarterback of the future.

They’ll need him at his best once again in Santa Clara.

Key 10: Show the Jackels 49ers who they are

Fire up the pregame speech one more time coach.

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