Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part I
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: We'll start with a hot topic, even if it probably has little to no bearing on what happens with these two teams on the field Sunday. Does the postgame altercation between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz last season still have any lingering meaning to the Lions or getting any reaction from the team this week? What is your whole take on how that went down after the game last year? Does Harbaugh need to work on his handshake etiquette? Did Schwartz overreact afterward? What's going to happen during the postgame handshake Sunday night?
Nate Caminata, publisher, RoarReport.com: I think it was a case of overreaction, compounded by the media storm that ensued immediately afterward. It's important to understand that part of Jim Schwartz's job was to change the culture in Detroit; the team's name didn't exactly exude respect, and Schwartz and his club throughout the season demanded just that – and it would surface during moments of tension that would occasionally boil over. Handshake-gate was one of those moments. Other than the media using it as a subplot to a Sunday night contest, I doubt it has a real impact on either team and if cooler (and more mature) heads prevail, I would expect the postgame shake to be without incident.
Craig Massei: On to more serious matters – are the Lions better or worse entering this season than they were last year during their breakthrough season? What has Detroit done to get better and take the next step from playoff team to serious NFC title contender? Is it legitimate to consider the Lions in any kind of serious championship conversation this year?
Nate Caminata: Personnel-wise, the Lions didn't make drastic changes between last year's roster and 2012 – primarily because they didn't need to. Detroit is loaded on offense, and other than a few shortcomings in the defensive secondary, offer a pretty devastating defense anchored by Ndamukong Suh and Co. Although they were successful last year, it was more of a learning stage for the ball club, and that was evident in the team's irrational behavior both on and off the field. If they're able to show mental growth and allow it to catch up with their physical talents on the field, they have the skill to match up with any team in that championship conversation. Of course, Sunday night's contest will either confirm or destroy that notion.
Craig Massei: Considering the Rams went 2-14 last season, it looked a little shaky that the Lions had to come from behind in the fourth quarter and score a touchdown in the final seconds to avert an upset at home in last week's opener. It looked like Detroit dominated statistically; why was that game so close and almost a loss? How good about themselves do the Lions feel coming out of that opener?
Nate Caminata: In an odd way, I believe last weekend's close call was the best reality check for a team that can occasionally struggle with ego. Had they blasted St. Louis, walking into San Francisco a week later might not have carried the weight necessary. Statistically, the Lions dominated, and even lost the turnover battle (minus-3) after Matthew Stafford's very uncharacteristic first-half interceptions. It also didn't help that Jeff Fischer was clearly schooling his former pupil, Jim Schwartz (it's worth mentioning to keep an eye on the Rams in 2012). The team remained steadfast, never doubted Stafford, and even in the final minutes it appeared the Lions had control of the outcome – Stafford's game-winning drive a testament to a maturity the organization hasn't experienced in over a decade.
Craig Massei: The 49ers, and Frank Gore in particular, have been running over the Lions every time the two teams have met for the past several years. That was the case again during last year's thriller at Ford Field, and you can be sure the Niners will try to keep it going again Sunday. The Lions looked good stopping Steven Jackson and the St. Louis running game last week. What will they do – or can they do – differently to stop Gore and the 49ers on the ground Sunday night?
Nate Caminata: Last season, the Lions employed an almost entirely fresh set of linebackers in Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch alongside DeAndre Levy, and the unit didn't jell entirely until the last quarter of the season. With a purposefully aggressive defensive line that can occasionally overpursue, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham puts an emphasis on the roles of the linebackers, and the difference between last season and this year are – as Steven Jackson learned – incredibly palpable. One of the more interesting battles on Sunday night should be that battle between San Fran's ground attack and Detroit's more cohesive LB core.
Craig Massei: Can Megatron be stopped? Will Matt Stafford throw for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns again? Tell us what's going on with Detroit's two big offensive stars, Stafford and Calvin Johnson, and are they the best QB-WR combination in the NFL today? What have the Lions done to upgrade their running game to both complement and take some attention away from that dynamic duo this season?
Nate Caminata: I don't think there's a mortal on the planet capable of stopping Calvin Johnson. He proved last year, and even in a few instances against St. Louis, that regardless of scheme there isn't much to do against a player of his caliber – it's actually remarkably similar to the frustrations opposing D-coordinators felt while game-planning against Barry Sanders. As for the QB-WR combination: I suppose I would like to hear a compelling argument against Johnson and Stafford. Or just ask Dallas' Rob Ryan after last year's fiasco against Detroit. Although Stafford might not repeat his numbers, he probably won't need to. The Lions also tossed the ball more than any other team in 2011 due to the lack of a ground game, which should witness a boost in productivity – and add balance to the offense – with the return of second-year player Mikel Leshoure (he will miss Sunday night's contest due to suspension). Along with Kevin Smith and the eventual return of Jahvid Best (PUP), Stafford has a ground unit that can help keep a defense honest.
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