As the Lions head to San Francisco for Sunday’s NFC Championship game, all the buzz is on the star players. Deebo Samuel is slated to play. Christian McCaffrey will be expected to work magic. Meanwhile, the Lions’ offensive three-headed monster of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Sam LaPorta face one of their toughest matches yet.
Lost in it all may be the biggest key for the Lions: their run defense. It’s not anchored by any stars, aside from an argument that Alex Anzalone has been one of the league’s most underrated players this year. But if the Lions are in it to win it Sunday, they’ll need Anzalone and everyone else up front to keep the Niners’ ground game in check from start to finish.
Bold prediction of the week: Lions hold Christian McCaffrey to 15 or fewer carries
That’s right, you’re not misreading that. This prediction is not about what McCaffrey does with his touches, but how many he gets to begin with.
By now, you’ve probably seen the stats around McCaffrey’s rushing performances this season — he rarely falls below 70 rushing yards, meanwhile the Lions defense rarely lets opposing running backs beyond that threshold. However, there’s a method to the madness on the 49ers offense.
Much like the Lions, the Niners are equipped to play from ahead. Kyle Shanahan’s teams have not been good from behind — Shanahan is 1-30 when his team is down by seven or more in the fourth quarter, with the lone win coming last week against Green Bay. That usually means that if the Niners are winning, they deploy McCaffrey in a way much akin to how the Lions use David Montgomery to bleed out the end of the game.
On the other hand, if the Niners are playing from behind, they’ll turn to the passing game. While Shanahan gets creative, the Niners’ passing offense just doesn’t stack up to the combination of CMC and the 49ers’ run blocking talent. Think of it similar to how Jahmyr Gibbs might get more touches on swing passes if the Lions are playing from behind as opposed to David Montgomery getting fed inside runs.
It’s somewhat of an oversimplification, but the recipe for the Lions is simple: keep the ball out of Christian McCaffrey’s hands. Luckily for the Lions, stopping the run has been the defense’s number one priority all year. This is not just based on the eye test, either — McCaffrey has 15 or fewer rushes in five games this season. In those five games, the Niners are 1-4. That’s right, that’s all of their losses (excluding Week 18, when they rested McCaffrey and other starters).
At the end of the day, the Lions will need a strong performance in run defense to open up the rest of the playbook on defense, as well as the offense by protecting a lead. Luckily for the Lions, they don’t have to be perfect. Despite getting off to a horrendous start last week against Rachaad White and the Buccaneers, White would finish the day with just nine carries. On those nine carries, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and more often than not made it to the second level of the Lions defense. However, the Bucs had to play from behind, and that meant different personnel and different play calling.
The Lions have the blueprint. They’ve done it before. Can they do it one more time to send them to the Super Bowl? We’ll see on Sunday night.