In 49ers, a stiff challenge awaits new-look Lions in season opener
Allen Park — With new coaches, new schemes and a young roster filled with new players, it would have been nice if the Detroit Lions had an opportunity to ease into the regular season against an opponent with similarly low outside expectations.
Alas, the Dan Campbell era will begin with the toughest of tasks, a Super Bowl contender loaded with potential playmakers on offense and defense.
Hey, at least it's a home game.
On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers come to town looking far more like the team that held a lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV at the end of the 2019 season than the one that limped to a 6-10 record last season when they lost a number of key starters to injury.
Offensively, the 49ers possess one of the league's most versatile, potent attacks, orchestrated by head coach Kyle Shanahan. The Lions counter a defense coming off the worst performance in franchise history, helmed by first-year coordinator Aaron Glenn.
Through training camp and the preseason, Glenn's defense did show signs of marked improvements. He's eager to test drive the unit at full speed, just to see how far it's come.
"You've got to be excited to play this team because you want to measure yourself against the best," Glenn said. "Hell, I want to measure myself against one of the best play callers to see exactly where I'm at. That's why, collectively as a group, we're looking forward to this challenge."
It starts on the ground for San Francisco, which averaged 4.6 yards per carry during that Super Bowl season and is coming off a preseason where it similarly imposed its will on opponents, rushing for an NFL-best 188 yards per game. The rushing attack is led by Raheem Mostert, a speedster who has averaged 5.6 yards per carry the past three seasons, and six-foot, 215-pound rookie Trey Sermon.
"Everything they're built around is their run game," Glenn said. "They're going to make some yards, but we're going to do our damndest now to do what we can because we're built on that. We're built on our front, of making sure we build a wall, we set edges and we make tackles. I'm not going to sit here and say, listen, we're afraid of their run game. I'm not going to say that, but I do recognize who they are in the run game."
In the pass game, Shanahan utilizes deception through shifts and motion to maximize mismatches for his explosive weapons. The Lions have placed a heavy emphasis on defenders remaining disciplined with the "eye candy" they expect the 49ers to present before the snap.
Once the ball is snapped, tight end George Kittle remains the league's premier all-around tight end, while receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are problems after the catch.
"Dynamic in space, really dynamic in space," Glenn said. "Really good hands. Then you see the athleticism. I forget what game it was, Aiyuk made a guy miss and he jumped up and jumped over a guy.
"Deebo is a running back with a receiver skill set," Glenn said. "Any time you have those types of guys, not only do you have to worry about the passing game, but you have to worry about the receiver runs. Right? These guys do a good amount of that. You've got to credit Shanahan and his whole staff for understanding this is exactly who we want to do certain things and they do a good job of putting those guys in good positions."
Even if the Lions do manage to slow the 49ers' offense, putting up points is an entirely different challenge. Despite last year's injuries, including a torn ACL suffered by 2019 Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, the team finished fifth in yards allowed.
Bosa is back and leads a ferocious defensive front into the Week 1 matchup.
"I think a guy that can be a game-breaker is Nick Bosa and they do have (Arik) Armstead on the other side," offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. "That D-line is really the strength of this defense. Everything kind of falls into place after that. If they can get the rush they want, they can play coverage all day. Our protection plan is going to have to be tight."
According to Lions quarterback Jared Goff, the key for offensive success will be efficiency on first down. If they can execute the game plan, it would reduce the number of third-and-long situations and potentially negate the 49ers' lethal pass rush.
"We do have to stay ahead of the sticks, no doubt about it," Lynn said. "If we get behind the sticks with this team right here, that’s exactly where they want us. I think they have one of the best pass rushes in the game and we play right into their hands. So, that’s going to be really important. That’s one of the keys for sure."
Ultimately, the schedule is the schedule. The majority of the opponents are set years in advance — based on a rotation of divisional matchups — with the final three games determined by where your team placed in the standing the previous year.
The only variable is the order, and in recent years, the Lions have drawn favorable openers — against the lowly Jets at home, a road game against the Cardinals starting a rookie quarterback in 2019 and last year's home game against a familiar foe, NFC North rival Chicago.
Despite those draws, the Lions still went winless, mustering only a tie after blowing a lead against the Cardinals. Even though the odds are seemingly long, they'll try to reverse that trend in 2021. They'll need to since things won't get any easier with a road trip to Green Bay for a primetime tilt with the Packers, before returning home against perennial playoff contender Baltimore in Week 3.