The long wait is over. The Detroit Lions last played a meaningful game almost 8 months ago, and the wait has been torture!
An almost totally revamped Lions team will take to the field in front of a fully-stocked Ford Field for the first time in 20 months, with all the excitement and intrigue of seeing not only the flashy 2021 draftees, but a new QB under center in Jared Goff.
How will things stack up against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, who feature an array of superstars such as Jimmy Garroppolo, 3rd overall pick Trey Lance, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and one of the best offensive minds in the game, in head coach Kyle Shanahan?
In order to do this, let's take a look back at the SF team of 2020. The 49ers were 5-6 before falling off to a 6-10 record. They finished 11th in overall DVOA at 5.4%, despite an awful run of injuries including losing starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo for 10 games, superstar TE George Kittle for 8 games, starting RB Raheem Mostert for 8 games, DE Nick Bosa for 14 games and CB Richard Sherman for 11 games to name a few.
Given this injury list, the "relative success" of the team was achieved off the back of one of the most inventive and effective running games the league has seen for some time. Jeff Wilson led the RB room with 600 yards on 126 attempts (4.8Y/A) and 7 TDs, and starting RB Mostert also ran for 521 yards on 104 carries (5.0Y/A) and 2 TDs.
The receiving game was also quite shared out with the injuries to Garoppolo and Kittle (who tends to hog receptions otherwise) with Aiyuk leading the team with 748 yards and 5 TDs, ahead of Kendrick Bourne's 667 yards and 2 TDs. Despite missing half the season, Kittle was still 3rd in receiving yards with 634 yards and 2 TDs.
Looking at SF's offseason, they've been busy picking up talent without losing much back in return.
They spent 3 1st round picks in order to draft Trey Lance 3rd overall out of NDSU, but also took G Aaron Banks 48th, RB Trey Sermon 88th and CB Ambry Thomas at 102nd.
Free Agency additions:
C Alex Mack (Falcons) joined, one of the best in the league, alongside LB Samson Ebukam (Rams), and former Lions S Tavon Wilson and WR Mohamed Sanu.
Free Agency losses:
The big names lost included CB Richard Sherman, QB Nick Mullens, WR Kendrick Bourne, DE Zeke Ansah and RB Jerick McKinnon.
Some of the biggest overhauls in the organisation came through the coaching positions. The former favourite for the Lions HC job Robert Saleh did leave for pastures new in going to be HC of the New York Jets. Pass game coordinator Mike LaFleur also went with him becoming OC. The QB, OL and CB coaches also moved on.
In their place, the 49ers mostly promoted from within, except for a new QB coach, and a familiar face to the Lions with new DBs coach Cory Undlin.
The Big Game
This game is actually pretty simple. Both teams have suspect secondaries, but also have suspect passing games. Leading receiver last year Aiyuk had drop rate of 5.2% and 4 interceptions when targetted, leading to a passer rating when targetted of 86.6. WR2 Deebo Samuel actual had -7 yards before the catch and an average depth of target of 2.2 yards which is ok for a running back with passing upside, but even Jerick McKinnon was higher than that. Kittle will be all-important here, watch for the Lions to double him almost permanently.
The area where these teams will be aiming to win will be in the run game. Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey both ranked above 91 in run blocking per PFF last year, and the rest ranked fairly well. There's a big drop off to the pass blocking, with Williams the only O lineman playing more than 100 snaps rating over 66 per PFF.
Likewise, although it's only projection right now, Detroit will be hoping that its O line, thought to be a top 10 unit, can start run blocking like one, especially given an RB room that should be productive with help.
It's no surprise therefore to say that this game will be won and lost by Detroit's O-line, and front 7 on defense. Stop that SF run attack, try their best to slow down George Kittle, and take the pressure of Jared Goff in the run, and the Lions have a chance in this game. How likely is that?
Well, this O line has a top 10 left tackle and a top 3 center. Jonah Jackson showed promise in an up and down rookie campaign at left guard, Halapoulivaati Vaitai spent much of the campaign somewhat injured and Penei Sewell has had a rough start to his NFL career as the no.7 overall pick but has all the potential in the world. Suffices to say that the left-hand side of the line is as secure as can be, and the right-hand side is a "wait-and-see". Looking at PFF last season, it's clear that the Lions performed far better in a zoom blocking scheme rather than a gap based scheme - look for the Lions to run a lot more zone concepts this season.
Looking at the defensive side of the equation, the front 5 defenders Detroit have built has the potential to be a fearsome unit. The publicly maligned Trey Flowers has had 4 straight seasons of a PFF rating 80 and above and is an effective defender. Romeo Okwara is coming off his 10 sack season in 2020, Alim McNeill is a run-stuffing monster but also has a great amount of pass-rush upside, Michael Brockers should show people why the Rams will miss him on that D line and either Nick Williams or Levi Onwuzurike have traits that should help the Lions in both phases of the game. Whether they live up to their potential could be the deciding factor here.
Of course, all of that could be torn down by the performance of the Lions' linebackers. Jamie Collins is a leader by example in this group but has disappointed so far in his Lions career. His position might be slightly changing so he'll see more impact on the edge and that may well suit his skill set better. Alex Anzalone will wear the green dot (call the play on defense), but has had an underwhelming preseason thus far, especially in the run game.
This game will be won in the trenches, as it so often is, but there's more emphasis on it in the opening week given the team's relative strengths and weaknesses.