Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part III

Our Scout.com experts, Craig Massei of NinersDigest and Nate Caminata of RoarReport, go Behind Enemy Lines to take a closer look at Sunday's showdown of first-place teams between the 49ers and undefeated Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Let's conclude this exclusive three-part series with the game's key matchups, why each team will win and why each will lose, and final predictions from Craig and Nate.


MATCHUPS TO WATCH: LIONS OFFENSE VS. 49ERS DEFENSE

Lions RB Jahvid Best vs. 49ers middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman
The 49ers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in a NFL-best 27 consecutive games, and you can be sure that Best's 163 yards rushing on just 12 carries against the Bears on Monday night caught the attention of the league's fourth-ranked rushing defense and its dynamic inside duo. San Francisco's first priority is to shut down the run, and tackle machines Willis and Bowman will be stepping up on every play to prevent Best from getting to the second level. Both LBs are active and aggressive playmakers, and they have been arguably the league's best inside tandem so far this season. It will also be their responsibility to stay with Best out of the backfield on passing plays, so he will challenge them both on the ground and through the air with his speed and elusiveness.

Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew vs. 49ers linebackers
The Lions will be without the services of Tony Scheffler (concussion), a major blow to a multi-faceted offense that relies heavily upon its tight ends. Still, Detroit will employ Brandon Pettigrew (26 catches) as the team looks to attack the middle of the field. Pettigrew and Scheffler were thorns for Chicago, and Matthew Stafford will need Pettigrew to exploit the seam to help keep the San Francisco secondary – but most importantly, the linebackers – honest. If the two can spark early, it will afford Jahvid Best some of the same running opportunities that he had against Chicago.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ERS OFFENSE VS. LIONS DEFENSE

49ers RG Adam Snyder/C Jonathan Goodwin vs. Lions DT Ndamakong Suh
A 2-against 1 matchup? Yes, that's about what it takes to slow down the 307-pound "King Kong" of Detroit's defensive front, who could become one of the best defensive tackles of this NFL generation. If he isn't already. "He's definitely up-and-coming," Goodwin said this week. "He's definitely a great talent. He probably even has a chance to be one of the best to ever play the game." As Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week, the Lions like to "walk (Suh) around some and run some games with him." But mostly, it will be on Snyder and Goodwin to neutralize the dynamic All-Pro, who usually will be lining up either between the two or over Snyder at his standard left tackle position in Detroit's 4-3 defensive front. The 49ers need to get their rushing game going early to be effective offensively, and Suh certainly will be bent on interfering with those plans.

49ers' interior OL vs. Lions' interior DL
Detroit rushed only four defensive linemen in that massacre of Chicago on Monday night. Simply put, they rarely blitzed, a testament to the talent of the Lions, who like to toss their linemen in waves at an offensive line and wait for the aftermath. This game will be no different, except that 49ers' QB Alex Smith, while a solid game-manager, cannot duplicate the evasive and athletic skills that kept Bears' QB Jay Cutler alive. If the Lions DL is able to have its way early and often, this game could be over by halftime. However, if the opposite occurs, and Smith is able to move the ball around the field, it could take the crowd out of the game and put Detroit in an uneasy position.

THE 49ERS WILL WIN IF ...
... they establish their running game, sustain drives to control the clock, shorten the game, win the turnover battle and keep Detroit's explosive offense off the field. The 49ers can't stray too far from that formula, because this probably rates as their toughest challenge so far this season considering the way the Lions match up with San Francisco in several areas. But if the Niners move the chains with their balanced West Coast offense, protect the football and continue to be opportunistic on defense, it won't matter much what the Lions do, because San Francisco will be in control and ahead on the scoreboard at the finish.

THE LIONS WILL WIN IF ...
... they do the same thing they did against Chicago. The combination of crowd noise, defensive line pressure and an explosive offense are things any team would struggle containing. If Detroit takes an early lead, it's doubtful the Lions look back, and they prove to the few remaining doubters that this is a squad not to be taken lightly.

THE 49ERS WILL LOSE IF ...
... they lose the takeaway/giveaway battle and fail to make life miserable for quarterback Matthew Stafford, allowing him time to get in a rhythm and allowing the Detroit offense to take control of the game. The 49ers can't get in an early hole, and they must rattle Stafford and put him on his back at least a few times while getting in his face on as many passing downs as possible. If the 49ers allow the explosive Detroit offense to dictate the tempo, their seven-game winning streak against the Lions will come to an unceremonious end.

THE LIONS WILL LOSE IF ...
... they allow the 49ers' offense to establish itself, and they turn the ball over. The Lions have the firepower to play shootout, but San Francisco is better at managing the clock and playing keep-away with quick-strike offenses. If the Lions lose the turnover battle, and cannot compensate defensively, Detroit's winning streak will end with a thud.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Craig Massei: The 49ers are a talented team with an aggressive defense that has gotten better every week with a new coaching staff expertly pulling the strings. With the steady improvement has come swelling confidence and soaring momentum that will make this team tough to beat unless it beats itself. The 49ers proved they are for real during last week's 48-3 blowout of Tampa Bay, but this game will be an entirely different animal. The 49ers have yet to play a team as good as Detroit, and the Lions have plenty of positive things going for them as well. I envision an outstanding, well-played battle that is decided by a field goal, with David Akers as the guy who makes it in a game that could go either way.
49ERS 26, LIONS 24

Nate Caminata: The Lions have won three of their five games on the road in adverse conditions, and have played dominant in each of their home tilts. While they're going to struggle against aggressive, explosive teams like Green Bay, they win most of the match-up battles with the 49ers and can make a statement by winning a game they should win against a quality opponent. This game already has post-season implications, and I'm of the belief that Detroit has learned to win. San Francisco is up and coming, but the 49ers are not there yet.
LIONS 27, 49ERS 17

Craig Massei is the publisher of NinersDigest.com

Nate Caminata is the publisher of Roar Report.com


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