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What is the 49ers top concern facing the Lions?

Marc Adams
Jan 27, 2024 at 10:00 AM

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What is the top concern, or top priority, of the San Francisco 49ers as they head into the NFC Championship Game to face the Detroit Lions? Is it on the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball? After all, both teams have explosive offenses that can score from anywhere.

The 49ers offense should be able to score on Detroit's defense. San Francisco has, perhaps, the NFL's most dangerous offense, and the back end of the Lions' defense hasn't been particularly strong. So the 49ers should put some points on the board. The 49ers are seven-point favorites.

But the Lions' offense has been very good, while the 49ers' defense has had its ups and downs, especially against the run. Because of this, and because Detroit is one of the best running teams in the league, I have been saying all week that the thing that has me most concerned was the San Francisco defense facing the Detroit running game. To me, that's been priority one.

I even mentioned it in this week's edition of the 49ers Webzone Mailbag when a fan asked what is the biggest concern for the 49ers against the Lions. My response was, "The top concern facing the Lions has to be trying to slow down that running game. Detroit has one of the league's best rushing attacks. Their offensive line is very good, and they have multiple backs that can hurt you. Jahmyr Gibbs is the speedster who can score from anywhere. David Montgomery is the more traditional back that the Lions run between the tackles.

"Then, once they get the ground game going, it opens up the play-action passing game, where they can get the ball into the hands of their talented pass catchers, namely Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta. That's the 49ers' biggest concern, the San Francisco defense trying to stop the Detroit offense." I have continued to say this, whether in writing, or just casually speaking to someone, or on various podcasts.

But on Friday, a guest on my show gave a different view. Oscar Aparicio, formerly of the Better Rivals Podcast, joined me to discuss the NFC Championship, and his take was a little different than mine. I asked Aparicio if stopping the Detroit run game was his number one concern going into the NFC Championship.

"I think that's going to be one of the things that tilts the game," Aparicio said. "But my general operating frame is that I'm going to stop what is going to be most explosive and score you more points. And generally speaking, that's the passing game. Because I think if the Niners over-index to the run, then they're going to get beat via the pass. And I'd much rather have you try to do like five yards, five yards, four yards, three yards than I would 15 yards to 20 yards at a time. So my general operating frame is like, I probably want to stop the pass first and then get to a positive game script and then just remove your run game by just the fact that you can't run. And that's what the Niners have done so far this year."

The 49ers' defense has had some games where they have dominated, like the games against the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. But they've also had some games in which they did not look good. Against the Minnesota Vikings, QB Kirk Cousins had his way. When the 49ers played the Cincinnati Bengals, the defense struggled to even slow down Joe Burrow and the Bengals' passing game. They weren't any better at slowing down the Bengals' running game either.

Then, in their second game against the Arizona Cardinals this season, the 49ers surrendered over 200 yards on the ground. Now to be fair, when the defense has been at its worst, it's happened in games when they were tired and had played multiple games in a row. Still, this unit, which for years carried the team, has looked vulnerable, at times, during the season.

Aparicio continued, "If you look at yards against the Niners' defense, I think it's first in the NFL. And that's just because they get so many leads that teams can't run. They have to abandon the run. But if you look at per-play efficiency, they're near the bottom of the league and that's because they're actually not great at stopping the run on a per-play basis. It's just that they get ahead and teams have to abandon the run, and so they just don't run and don't rack up that many yards. So I think that the best way to get the Lions out of their run game is to get a lead, get a positive game script, shut down their passing game, and then eliminate the fact that they're going to need to run in meaningful ways by just having a really good offense."

So while some may say shutting down the Lions run game is the top priority, Aparicio is saying that shutting down the Detroit passing game is the most important thing for the 49ers' defense. It's going to be critical for the 49ers pass rush to make their presence known. With Lions QB Jared Goff, there's a big difference between the Goff that's not pressured and the Goff that is pressured. If the 49ers pass rush can put some pressure on him, they have a shot at forcing some turnovers. Aparicio said getting pressure on the Lions QB is extremely important.

"Yeah, they have to," added Aparicio. "That is the number one thing. The number one priority is get pressure on Jared Goff. And the thing about Jared Goff, this year anyway, is that when he's blitzed, he actually performs pretty well. So I don't know that blitzing is necessarily going to get the Niners what they want. You've got to be able to win with four.
This is the identity for the 49ers. This is how they built their team. This is why they have a bunch of first-rounders and traded for Chase Young.

"This is the moment that your strategy pays off. And the Lions' offensive line is really, really good, but their center is banged up, their guard is out, and that is going to be the opportunity to win. I think you have to win up front, and if you can win up front and get pressure on Jared Goff, then yeah, I totally understand the seven-point spread. I think that makes a lot of sense.

"I hope that is indeed the case. Let's let John Lynch be right. Build from the front to the back. Now it's time to let that front win."

So what is the top priority for the 49ers? Is it shutting down the Detroit run game, which will render the play-action passing game a lot less effective? Or is it shutting down the Lions' passing game, so they abandon the run? Or maybe it's just that the 49ers' defense needs to dominate, create turnovers, and continue to get the ball back to their offense. That sounds like a winning formula to me.

You can watch the full interview with Aparicio below:

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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