Lion Tamers: The 49ers Overcome Adversity, Mental Errors in the Motor City

Oct 18, 2011 at 3:20 AM

Before we get into what happened Sunday at Ford Field, if you came here looking for a rundown the "handshake heard ‘round the world", you're in for some disappointment. The incident was unimportant, overblown and unfairly took the focus from a truly remarkable accomplishment by a truly remarkable team…so I won't be getting into it.

The aforementioned noted, let's get to the good stuff. The 49ers headed to Detroit with a chance to start the season 5-1…a start that even the most optimistic of fans couldn't have dreamed of at the beginning of the season. Early on, the new 49ers started the day looking a hell of a lot like the old 49ers. After a sack, strip and fumble recovery on their first offensive play, the 49ers offense sputtered. Before the 49ers found their feet, they found themselves behind, 10-0.

In the 2nd quarter, the 49ers scored 12 points the hard way (that's a hard 12: TD, FG, Safety) to take a lead into the locker room at halftime. As the game neared its end, it looked like the Niners were going to cave. A late TD put the 49ers in a four point hole…and after the two minute warning, they scored 10 points to take the lead, 25-19. Then they made that lead stand up with two absolutely stunning defensive stands in the games final minute.

But what made this game special is not that the 49ers won after they failed to execute early. This game was not made special because the 49ers found a way to win despite committing far too many stupid penalties. No, this game was special because the 49ers didn't just overcome adversity. No. It would be more accurate to say that when it mattered most, they grabbed adversity by the throat, kicked it in the marble sack and took its lunch money.

The box score only tells part of the story. What follows are some of the individual performances that added up to victory in the Motor City for the 49ers.

Ndamakong Who?
In the week leading up to the showdown in the Motor City, much was made of Ndamaking Suh and his band of merry quarterback crushers. To be sure, the Lions have what could be the most dominant defensive line in football. On the 49ers' first offensive snap, Kyle Vanden Bosch collected a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery…and it looked as though Alex Smith was going to spend most of the game on his back.

But then something curious happened. The line stiffened (5 false starts notwithstanding), allowing only one more sack to the defenders that were supposed to run them ragged. As the game wore on, play got chippy, and the O-line got absolutely nasty. Before all was said and done, the 49ers rolled up over 200 rushing yards against Detroit's vaunted "front nine". Frank Gore looked absolutely dominant, rolling up 141 yards and a TD on 15 carries. For all their bluster, the Lions were manhandled in the trenches…something that none of the nation's "experts" thought possible. Most notable: the best player of the Lions' defensive front, Ndamakong Suh, was made a non-factor, recording only two tackles and no sacks on the day.

But what about Megatron?
Coming into this game, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio intimated that the 49ers were not going to assign their best corner to cover Detroit's do-it-all deep threat, Calvin Johnson. Coming into Sunday's game, he had 9 touchdowns in the season's first 5 games…a feat that no other NFL wideout had ever accomplished. Given the torching handed to the 49ers earlier this season by marquee receivers Miles Austin and DeSean Jackson, the question wasn't whether or not Johnson would score…but how much he would score.

So…did Megatron find the endzone against the 49er secondary of Rogers, Brown, Culliver, Whitner and Goldson? To quote Damon Bruce of KNBR: Negatron.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio had the 49er secondary bracket Johnson, gambling that the 49er pass rush would put enough pressure on Matthew Stafford to keep him from dialing up any deep tosses to his favorite target. Fangio's gamble paid off. Even though Johnson hauled in 7 passes for over 100 yards…he was kept out of the endzone for the first time this season. And any way you slice it that is one hell of an accomplishment.

Darth Vader Defense
There are a great many things that one could say about the 49er defense, but their performance in Detroit said it all: they shut down Jahvid Best, kept Calvin Johnson out of the end zone, and they sacked Matthew Stafford 5 times. The 49ers' front seven may be the best in the game today…and they have a 28 game streak of holding opposing rushers to less than 100 yards on the ground to prove it.

Middle Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman get the lion's share (pun intended) of media attention, and with good reason. They can run, cover, tackle, and rush the passer with the best of them. These two give the 49ers the best tandem of middle linebackers in the game today…and it isn't close.

But the real story here is the revitalized pass rush. Ends Justin Smith (rapidly becoming the 49ers best free agent acquisition ever) and Ray McDonald (whose nickname should be Juggernaut…because he's unstoppable) have been frequent visitors to opposing backfields, terrorizing opposing runners and passers alike. Nose Tackle Isaac Sopoaga continues to be a massive upgrade over his predecessor, Aubrayo Franklin.

In recent weeks, however, rookie Aldon Smith has been on the brightest star in the 49er pass rush. He spent his Sunday afternoon beating Lions' OT Jeff Backus like a Salvation Army drum. Over the past three games, he's racked up 5.5 sacks and a safety. Smith adds an element to the 49er nickel defense that they haven't had for some time: an edge rusher that has the ability to get to the quarterback at any time. As soon as this guy tightens up his game at OLB, he is going to be scary good.

So the next time the 49er defense takes the field, cue the music. And by music, I mean the heavy metal version of the "Imperial March", a la Star Wars. Why? Because this defense is choking the life out of its opponents…like Darth Vader.

Alex the Great?
He certainly didn't look it for most of Sunday's game. It was obvious that his early lost fumble stayed with him throughout the game. His mechanics were spotty, his accuracy was off and at times he looked REALLY uncomfortable in the pocket, even when he had time to throw. The 49ers were abysmal on third down, and Smith's play had a lot to do with it. For the game, he posted a season worst QB rating of 60.

It is funny how quickly a player can go from goat to great in the space of one play.

On 4th and goal from the 6 yard line, the 49ers faced their final chance to pull out a win. When it mattered most, Smith didn't hesitate. He didn't drop his shoulder on his release. He didn't lock out his lead leg, causing his pass to miss high. No…when it mattered most, Alex Smith fired his best pitch…and the 49ers won the game. So for one play at least, he was Alex the Great.

When the season started, no one could have predicted that the 49ers would start this hot. The fact of the matter is, this team defies convention. In a lockout shortened offseason, with a rookie head coach, a new offense and a massive influx of new starters, this team was supposed to struggle. And yet going into their Week 7 bye, the 49ers are 5-1. How good can they be? Only time will tell. But for now, the 49ers are in a place that many of us remember…at the top of their division, among the best teams in the league.

Enjoy it, 49er fans. Enjoy it.
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.


  • Lucky Luigi
    Oct 19, 2011 at 3:34 PM
  • Gorgeous George
    Oct 19, 2011 at 12:57 PM
  • 49er Lou
    It seems that everything about this game has been covered. I have just one more Alex Smith observation, his physical play. On the interception, he was in on the tackle, and helped make sure it wasn't a pick six. Then on a Ginn reverse he layed a great block that helped Ted get around the corner. Great stuff, I really hope he continues to improve. Go Niners!!!!
    Oct 19, 2011 at 8:51 AM
  • Lucky Bill
    NOBODY !!!!!!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 8:49 PM
    Response: Love it!!!
  • Montez
    Great article as always AJ, I'm still in disbelief at how well this team is playing but I'm enjoying every minute of it.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 6:57 PM
    Response: Thanks Montez! I'm right there with ya amigo. Gotta love this!
  • Shane
    Nice piece AJ, everything spot on! I dont believe in jinx so ill just say it... this team cld seriously get a first round bye, look at the schedule. The only thing that makes me nervous is if Smith will continue to play like he has (minus sailing everything to Crabtree) but its only cuz it feels like a dream, i dream i dont wanna wake up from! Just think, that game was WITHOUT Morgan and Edwards. so we arnt even at full offensive strength. I guess well never know if the line is starting to gel, starting to understand the zone, or just putting Snyder in was that big of an upgrade but i wld guess its all three. finally i love Miller at FB and Gore FINALLY spliting carries. Ive been begging for that for idk how long. But anyway you slice it, this is amazing! Enjoy it indeed!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 6:49 PM
    Response: I don't think its out of the question, Shane...but I don't want to jinx it, either. I'm curious to see how Smith responds when he's back at home against the Browns. Personally, I think he'll be just fine. I get the feeling that the line will be just fine too. If they can overcome noise and the Detroit D-line, they should light it up at home.
  • Randal
    Well thought out article, but I don't agree with you about the first play fumble hanging on to Alex like a bad paint job. Actually just getting through those first few series was incredibly tough for the offence. I have never heard a crowd that loud. There is no way you can practice for that noise - that together with a tough defence made those first series seem like an eternity. But in the end the niners forward progress got the crowd to quiet down. Right, they had to chip away at it, but they made it work. Go Niners!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 3:34 PM
    Response: Thanks for reading, Randal. I think that Alex will be okay, especially given that the Niners pulled out a win. This game should be a huge confidence builder for him. Go Niners!
  • Matt
    Even with his sub par performance, Alex was still only a couple of drops away from having pretty good numbers on the day (deep ball to Crabtree, and earlier potential TD to Walker). I expect him to bounce back against the Browns.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 2:59 PM
    Response: I hear ya, Matt, and I completely agree.
  • Grant (GoldandGarnet)
    Great article. Great work! Good read!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 1:59 PM
    Response: Thanks Grant! Way to rep the zone! Go Niners!
  • Lucky Phil
    Oct 18, 2011 at 12:53 PM
    Response: Nobody!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks for reading Phil!
  • Dan
    Well, that and Ted Ginn Jr. Greg Roman was actually running plays right at Ndamakong Suh. He had Tight Ends jamming the guy up one on one. And with Alex under all that pressure, after the overthrows, the dropped passes, he calls for a pass to Delainie a yard out of the end zone, on fourth and goal to win the whole thing. He basically put the game on Alex's and Delainie's shoulders right then. Alex had to get the ball halfway to the end zone, and Delainie had to push it the rest of the way. This was an electrifying win. The Lions played as tough a game as I could wish for, and the Niners did a fantastic job on the road once again. Don't you love writing these after a big win?
    Oct 18, 2011 at 12:52 PM
    Response: You're right. Alex delivered when it mattered, and I really think that's what people will remember when we talk about this game in the future. Oh, and I've noticed that Roman likes to scheme against his opponent's strength. He's done a fine job of attacking high profile players like Suh and Asomugha. I can;t wait to see what he has in store for the Browns.
  • Dan
    You mentioned almost everything. What an excruciating experience watching that game was. It was a nail biter. If you don't mind I'd like to add a couple things here. First Ted Ginn Jr., wow what a steal he was. He was over 200 yards combining returns, reverses, and receiving. I think I saw him break a tackle on that reverse play. He was responsible for almost twice as many yards as our entire passing game. Second the running game, on both sides of the ball. The deciding factor in THIS game was the running game. We could run the ball at will, and they could not. Combined with an impressive performance by our defensive secondary, and a couple clutch play from our quarterback, the running game and the run stopping game was really our greatest advantage.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 12:51 PM
    Response: You're right. Teddy Ginn deserves a shout out. That guy has been an absolute machine. Seely has done a heck of a job with this special teams unit.
  • JP49er Faithful
    Awesome read, thanks! "We back and we own the NFC West" Cuddie
    Oct 18, 2011 at 12:27 PM
    Response: No sweat, JP. Go Niners!
  • Nic
    Finally someone mentions our line's performance against Suh. Great article. As good of a start as CJ is having, no one mentioned that Megatron gets beat at the end of every movie! Keep up the good work AJ. NINERS BABY!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 12:12 PM
    Response: Thanks, Nic. The line really exceeded my expectations on Sunday. Go Niners!
  • Shane
    Great article. The niners played well on all phases of the game. One aspect that tends to get over looked is Walker dropping a wide open TD late in the game only to make up for it by making the biggest catch of the day. Keep it up NINERS!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 11:50 AM
    Response: Thanks for reading, Shane!
  • Gib Robinson
    Very good column. Well written. You caught the tone of the game -- something close to miraculous despite mistakes -- and the achievement of individual players who stood out in what was the most significant team effort in years. Who knows where this goes but it does feel special. --Gib
    Oct 18, 2011 at 11:35 AM
    Response: Thanks, Gib. I appreciate the support. And you are right...this feels awesome. I can't wait for Oct. 30th!
  • overthemiddle
    Tired of the handshake already. I felt Alex played the best game of his career against the Lions. Its not what he did but what he didnt do. The old Alex would of folded, would of been sacked many times throwen 3,4,5, picks. That Lion defense is great they were in the backfield as much as Alex was. There were at least 3 dropped balls and penalities up the gazoo. Everything was in line for Alex to fail - he did not.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 9:28 AM
    Response: Good call, OTM. Previous iterations of Alex would have folded in Sunday's game. He hung in there and delivered when it mattered most. And that is HUGE.
  • NinerTico
    Great enjoyable read and spot on! Wow! Really, pinch me 'cause it's still so surreal. We've talked about his at length before: Coaching makes all the difference in the world and we have one of the best evidenced by our 5-1 start in a shortened off-season with a new playbook. Amazing!!! Even Crabs is buying in, hard. Everyone and I mean everyone seems to playing until the whistle blows with blocks downfield, OLs picking up the WRs or RBs after their plays and just being the big bros to each other, not just the OLs. Speaking of which, I love Delaine Walker. That dude BLASTED Suh, not once but twice to spring Gore. It wasn't Iupati, Snyder or Rachal. Nope, it was Walker. I rewound the DVR to make sure. Beast mode smack and off went Gore. Like you said, when this team needs it the most and has to have it, whatever "it" is, we deliver. Clutch man, clutch. Here's to our beloved 49ers my friend. Cheers!
    Oct 18, 2011 at 7:46 AM
    Response: Tico! Who would have guessed that we'd start off like this? Ihe whole team is buying's great isn't it? Tell ya what, amigo...I'm gonna be getting out to the Cleveland game if all goes according to plan. We have some shots to do!
  • dave
    Great article, and really nice analysis on AS mechanics. Haven't felt this good about my team since the 90's.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 7:22 AM
    Response: Thanks, Dave!
  • sanfrankid49
    Great read! However you forgot to mention anything about Harbaugh and Co. The unsung heroes. Not just this game but the reason the 9ers are on a roll. These guys might be better teachers than they are coaches. That's saying alot cause these guys can flat out coach...
    Oct 18, 2011 at 7:10 AM
    Response: Good call. Harbaugh has figured out how to coach at this level VERY quickly. The scary part is that he's hell bent on improving. This staff is doing more than even the most optimistic 49er fan could have dreamed.
  • STL Niner Fan
    Have to admit, I was VERY nervous about this game. I thought we would have a hard time agains their passing attack. This DEF is really coming on strong..and this team is truly surpassing my wildest expectations. Regarding Alex Smith.....I think the jury is still out on what his ceiling is in this system (this discussion seems famaliar somehow?). In DET you saw flashes of old Alex Smith. Now he has played better this season than anytime in his career, and I'll give him due credit for that. One has to wonder though, if his play the rest of the season is a mirror image of his play through the first 6 weeks, does this front office consider letting him move on in the offseason? Or are we happy enough with this type of production to award him with a contract extension? We are not putting the game on his shoulders, and one wonders if he is that kind of QB (my guess is no), but one also wonders if eventually we are going to need this from our QB to win a SB (that being the ultimate goal). Anyway, it will be an interesting decision by our front office either way.....again assuming that AS continues to perform the way he has through 6 weeks.
    Oct 18, 2011 at 7:04 AM
    Response: We'll see how he does over the next 10 weeks. There is a lot of football left to play. Given what we've seen thus far, however, I wouldn't be surprised to see him continue to improve. Let's compare notes after the Cleveland game. However it turns out, it ought to be a lot of fun to watch!
  • charles
    Enjoyed your article- high praise for the NfC 'S best West Coast team. Also, thank for not bringing up the "handshake">
    Oct 18, 2011 at 5:33 AM
    Response: No sweat, Charles. Glad you liked the read.

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