49ers Analysis

How 49ers, Lions match up in upcoming NFC Championship Game

The teams will meet at Levi's Stadium with a spot in Super Bowl LVIII on the line

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With their heart rates back to normal, the 49ers awaited the outcome Sunday afternoon to find out which team would come to Levi’s Stadium next week.

The answer: The Detroit Lions.

The road was not easy for either team, as the 49ers struggled throughout before finally clicking late in the fourth quarter for a 24-21 come-from-behind victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoff round.

The Lions looked more crisp, but their 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not exactly a breeze, either.

It figures to be a good matchup in the NFC Championship Game to determine which team advances to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

Here is a closer look at the 49ers-Lions matchup:

When the 49ers are on offense

It’s uncertain whether 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel will be available for the game. He played only nine snaps Saturday night before exiting with a left shoulder injury.

Coach Kyle Shanahan said the injury was “something similar” to what Samuel experienced in Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns. Samuel did not play in the second half of that game and was out for the next two games with a hairline fracture.

Quarterback Brock Purdy must be sharper than he was throughout most of Saturday’s game. He also must spread the ball around to all his targets — not just Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Jauan Jennings and Chris Conley could have opportunities to shine, as they did late in the victory over the Packers.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is a candidate for at least four of the head coach openings.

Glenn certainly will focus on stacking the line of scrimmage to neutralize 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey. The Lions’ run defense is very good, allowing just 3.7 yards per rush attempt.

While the Lions’ linebackers are good near the line of scrimmage, the 49ers might be able to exploit those matchups in the middle of the field.

The 49ers face a challenge in keeping Purdy protected against one of the NFL's better pass-rushes. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson led the way for Detroit with 11.5 sacks.

Glenn will disguise coverages and bring some pressures, such as safety Ifeatu Melifonwu’s blitz for a sack early in Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Former Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson has stepped back into a prominent role after missing most of the season with a torn pectoral sustained in Week 2. He had an interception on Sunday.

When the 49ers are on defense

The 49ers proved to be susceptible through the air, and you can expect the Lions will be in three-wide-receiver sets and go after cornerback Ambry Thomas.

The 49ers’ pass rush must apply more pressure than it did Saturday night against the Packers. Cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir are fine, but Thomas and the 49ers’ safeties looked shaky.

This is a good chess match between Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Johnson is considered one of the best in the business, and both men have interviewed for multiple head-coaching jobs.

Johnson is credited with helping quarterback Jared Goff thrive in Detroit after his tenure with the Los Angeles Rams ended with coach Sean McVay losing faith and swinging a trade to acquire Matthew Stafford.

Goff had a strong season in leading the Lions to a 12-5 record, the NFC North title and the franchise’s first playoff victories since the 1991 season.

Goff completed 67.3 percent of his pass attempts in the regular season with 30 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 97.9. He had a solid game Sunday against the Buccaneers with 287 yards passing and two touchdowns.

The Lions feature one of the NFL’s most productive wide receivers, first-team All-Pro Amon-Ra St. Brown. He piled up 119 receptions for  1,515 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. 

Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta was a second-team All-Pro. He added 86 catches for 889 and 10 touchdowns. LaPorta is not completely healthy, but it’s difficult to tell with the way he played on Sunday.

The Lions love to run the ball, and they have the best one-two punch in the NFL with running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. Montgomery had 1,015 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, while Gibbs added 945 yards and 10 scores.

Gibbs also is a big threat in the passing game. He caught 52 passes for 316 yards.

The strength of the 49ers’ defense is along the second level with inside linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, and they will be tested in the run game and in coverage. Warner is the first-team All-Pro, but Greenlaw came up with the two game-changing interceptions of Packers quarterback Jordan Love on Saturday.

The 49ers must shore up their tackling to prevent the big play. The 49ers had nine missed tackles against the Packers.

Detroit has one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, featuring All-Pro right tackle Penei Sewell. Also, center Frank Ragnow is one of the best in the business, though he might not be 100 percent with a sore knee. Left guard Jonah Jackson, a Pro Bowl player, left Sunday’s game with a knee injury.

Special teams

The 49ers and Lions both rank in the lower third of NFL teams when it comes to complete play on special teams.

Detroit had issues in their kicking game this season and made a recent move to replace kicker Riley Patterson with veteran Michael Badgely.

The Lions’ coverage units are decent. Jalen Reeves-Maybin was voted as a second-team All-Pro on special teams.

Punter Jack Fox actually has seen his net average drop every season he’s been in the NFL, from 44.8 as a rookie to 40.9 this season.

In comparison, 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s net average was 42.7. The 49ers’ coverage units benefit from the return of George Odum from injured reserve.

Through most of Saturday’s game, the 49ers’ special teams were not good. Jake Moody had a field goal blocked at the end of the first half. And the kick coverage unit surrendered a 73-yard return that set up a Green Bay touchdown.

But Moody came through in the clutch with a 52-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter that put the 49ers in striking range for the late game-winning touchdown.

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