Keys to the game: 49ers/Lions

The 49ers are back in the NFL spotlight with their biggest October game in almost a decade, and they can establish themselves as one of the top teams in the NFC pecking order in today's showdown of first-place teams against the undefeated Detroit Lions. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the 4-1 Niners need to do to beat the Lions and match their best start since 1998.

Pressure Matthew Stafford and force him into mistakes
Stafford is off to a tremendous start, and the Lions have been feeding off the play of their young quarterback both on offense and as a team in general. But Stafford has been sacked just six times so far in five games and has not faced a lot of adversity in Detroit's magical run to a 5-0 start. He has been great bringing the Lions from behind and keeping the foot on the gas with a relentless passing game that is a threat to put points on the board quickly and regularly. But if the Niners can pressure him and hit him, that could put a seed of doubt in both his head and the minds of the rest of the Lions and their fans. And if the Niners can get him to put the ball on the ground and throw a few picks, it will turn the game in their favor.

Clamp down in the red zone
San Francisco's red-zone defense has been terrific, and the Niners will want to continue that trend of keeping opponents out of the end zone once they close in on scoring territory. Detroit has a lot of red-zone weapons it can go to, so the Niners must keep the damage to a minimum when the Lions get on the doorstep of the end zone. Limiting Detroit to three points instead of seven on its prime scoring opportunities will be huge in keeping the score down and in San Francisco's favor.

Contain Calvin Johnson and don't let him beat you
They don't call him Megatron for nothing. Everybody knows that Johnson has a NFL-record nine receiving touchdowns through five games, and that's because he is simply better than everybody else he is facing across the line. But even the best can be contained, and the Niners will have various ways of attempting to keep Johnson from being a guy that the Lions can go to in every key situation. The 49ers don't necessarily need to shut down Johnson to win, but they can't let him go crazy and be a player who beats them and becomes the difference in the game.

Establish run game and win time of possession
The San Francisco offense has stepped up the past two games in a big way, and it needs to do so again today, because the 49ers are likely going to have to score into the mid-20s to emerge victorious. That means establishing the run with Frank Gore to move the chains, which will allow a passing game missing two of its best wide receivers to get clicking and hit the Lions with play-action passing. The Niners have an opportunity to dictate the tempo of the game, and that could frustrate the Lions and make them anxious to take risks defensively. Gore figures to be a key contributor both on the ground and with swing passes and screen passes, and unpredictability with what Gore is doing on any given play will cause problems for a Detroit defense that can be caught out of position with its aggression. Sustaining long drives will shorten the game and keep the ball away from the Lions and allow the Niners to take control.

Neutralize Ndamunkong Suh and Detroit's deep defensive front
This won't be easy, because Suh is a monster and he has quality size and talent beside him in the trenches, and the Lions also can run in several fresh bodies without much of a dropoff in talent or performance. If this were a week ago, the 49ers would have appeared to be hugely overmatched here. But their outstanding performance last week against a quality Tampa Bay defensive front suggests the Niners have gotten their act together along their offensive line and can stand up to virtually anybody. That unit will have to do that here and is certain to be tested. The 49ers can't allow Suh and Detroit's defensive front to take control of the line of scrimmage for any significant duration.

Win the turnover battle
This key has been showing up weekly on San Francisco's list and is an obvious generalized key for any NFL team. But it is even more true for the 49ers, who have been playing such mistake-free football and jumping all over the errors of opponents with their opportunistic play. They figure to need that more than ever here against the Lions, who appear to have a clear edge in offensive firepower. The Niners must protect the football and also take it away a few times to thwart Detroit offensive opportunities and also give a few more to themselves. Both teams have been strong in this area with the Niners holding a plus-10 turnover differential coming into the game and the Lions at a solid plus-7. In a game of this magnitude, this could be a telling key.

Shut down run and force Lions to become one-dimensional
The Lions are one-dimensional enough with their spread offense and often line up in shotgun formations. But any team that is constantly in third-and-long situations figures to have problems as a game wears on and it is forced to pass. Even though Detroit has an edge in passing-game matchups on offense, this is exactly what the 49ers want to have happen, because there is more room for error for the Lions if they are forced to the air and lose the threat of keeping the San Francisco's opportunistic defense honest with the run.

Strong to the finish
Detroit's explosive offense has had a tendency to start slow this season, but it hasn't mattered because the Lions have outscored their last four opponents 92-16 after halftime. The Niners have allowed a grand total of eight points in the second half during their three-game winning streak, and they outscored the Bengals, Eagles and Buccaneers 58-8 over that stretch. Something has to give here, and the Niners need to make sure it is them that's the team that plays strong to the finish in the second half.

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