The 49ers could beat the Lions before the game even starts.
The Lions no-showed their season opener at home against the New York Jets. Lost 48-17. Embarrassed themselves on Monday Night Football. Matthew Stafford threw four picks. Sunday, he could be gun-shy, afraid to throw over the middle. Afraid to throw period.
Some of the Lions players reportedly already have turned on head coach Matt Patricia, who has coached only one game. Now, they have to fly across the country and play on a short week. They had one fewer day to prepare than the 49ers.
By the time the Lions get over their blowout loss from last week, they could be losing big again.
These are the critical matchups that will determine who wins.
1. Kyle Shanahan versus Matt Patricia: The rematch.
Even if the Lions fall behind 28-3, the game might not be over. It wasn’t over the last time between Shanahan and Patricia.
Those two have faced each other only once – during the 2017 Super Bowl. Shanahan was the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator. Patricia was the Patriots defensive coordinator.
You remember the game. Shanahan’s plan was brilliant. The Falcons took a 28-3 lead. Then, Patricia figured out Shanahan’s offense, adjusted to it, shut down the outside-zone run play, which shut down the entire running game, which in turn shut down the entire Falcons offense. And the Patriots won the Super Bowl largely because Patricia outcoached Shanahan in the second half. You can bet Shanahan and Patricia are aware of their first encounter. Up to that point, it was a career-defining moment for both of them.
Of course, the Lions aren’t the Patriots, but the 49ers aren’t the Falcons, either. There are unknowns in this matchup, but one thing is known.
Patricia has a book on Shanahan. Now, Shanahan has to write a new chapter by making a counter adjustment. Has to break the tendencies he established last season and in the Super Bowl against Patricia.
Let’s see if Shanahan does something different.
2. Right guard Najee Toran versus left defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois.
Starting right guard Mike Person officially is questionable. But, he couldn’t walk without limping Friday in the locker room, so he probably won’t play.
Without Person, the 49ers would start Toran, their fourth-string right guard. He’s an undrafted rookie from UCLA. The 49ers promoted him from their practice squad on Wednesday.
If Toran plays Sunday, the run game will become left-handed, meaning most of the runs will go to the left, behind Joe Staley and Laken Tomlinson. And the Lions will know it. Everyone will know it.
The 49ers have to find a way to run to the right. Have to find one or two plays that have a chance to succeed on that side.
3. Wide receiver Dante Pettis versus cornerback Nevin Lawson.
Detroit has one great cornerback: Darius Slay. He intercepted eight passes last season. Normally, he would cover Marquise Goodwin, but Goodwin will miss the game with a thigh bruise, so Slay will cover Pierre Garcon.
Advantage: Lions. Slay could shut him down.