Relentless defense stuffed run, made Detroit pass
Here’s how the 49ers fared on Sunday in keys to the game identified by NinersDigest before San Francisco’s momentous 25-19 victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, giving the Niners their first 5-1 start since 1998, their first four-game winning streak since 2001 and their eighth consecutive victory over the Lions while dropping Detroit from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Pressure Matthew Stafford and force him into mistakes
YES: Five sacks and a momentum-swinging safety? On a quarterback who had been sacked only six times in the first five games of the season? The 49ers came after Stafford all afternoon – dumping him for five sacks, hitting him eight times, and also wrapping him up in the end zone for two points – and totally took him out of his comfort zone as the game progressed. Stafford was out of sync and out of rhythm by the end of the game when the Lions desperately needed him to rally them from behind in the final minutes. Stafford had rallied the Lions from behind several times already this season, but he came up firing blanks against the Niners with the game on the line. After leading the Lions to a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Stafford went in the tank, and the Lions went punt, punt and turnover-on-downs on their next three possessions, then inexplicably didn’t even try to push the ball down the field when they got the ball back with no timeouts but 1:02 still to play and needing a touchdown. By that time, it looked like Stafford just wanted to get the game over.
Clamp down in the red zone
YES: The 49ers play clutch red zone defense, and they came through again when the Lions twice got inside their 7-yard line. Both times, Detroit could have taken control of the game with touchdowns but had to settle for field goals instead. That’s an eight-point swing in a game the 49ers won by six. Detroit has so many options and can present some match-up nightmares down near the goal line, but the Niners made those two key stops when they had to – one coming after a turnover on San Francisco’s first offensive play when the Lions could have set themselves up for the quick kill with a TD. On the other stop, Stafford threw three consecutive incompletions after the Lions had a first-and-goal opportunity at the six. Instead of grabbing the momentum there on their first possession after halftime, the Lions had to settle for a field goal that put them ahead by only a point.
Contain Calvin Johnson and don’t let him beat you
YES: You look at the final statistics, which show Johnson with seven receptions for 113 yards, and that has all the appearance of a productive afternoon. But that has to be one of the most meaningless 100-yard receiving games you will ever see – and probably the most meaningless Johnson ever has had. Johnson never hurt the Niners, and the Lions couldn’t get him the football when they needed to once Detroit got deep in San Francisco territory and closed in on the end zone. Johnson’s biggest play – a 41-yard reception that got the Lions out of a deep hole and moved them out to midfield – came on Detroit’s next offensive play after the Lions had scored a touchdown that put them ahead 19-15 in the fourth quarter. Yet, with a chance right there to bury the 49ers, the Lions couldn’t get another first down and had to punt, and Johnson’s big play went to waste. Johnson got his numbers, but he was well contained in the framework of how the game played out, and his record run of nine touchdown receptions and at least one touchdown catch in five consecutive games to begin the season came crashing to an end. Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers put it best when he said afterward: "Somebody else had to beat us. Calvin wasn't going to beat us. That is what we did. He had his plays here and there, but for the most part, we were going to shut him down."
Establish run game and win time of possession
YES: Yeah, you could say the 49ers established their run game, all right. And they stuck with it the entire game, going right at the Lions and their formidable front wall, which was outplayed by San Francisco’s suddenly resurgent offensive line. Frank Gore ripped off runs of 55 and 47 yards on his way to a game-high 141 yards rushing on just 15 carries, and the 47-yarder set up his own 1-yard TD plunge that got the Niners back in the game after they’d fallen behind 10-0 entering the second quarter. Kendall Hunter added 33 tough yards to complement Gore as San Francisco churned for 203 yards on the ground, averaging 7.0 yards a pop. The Lions finished with a 42-second advantage in time of possession, but that included the last 1:02 of the game when Detroit went nowhere on its feeble final possession.
Neutralize Ndamunkong Suh and Detroit’s deep defensive front
YES: The 49ers shocked some and surprised many by running right at Detroit’s monster in the middle. Who would have thought it? Suh was leveraged out of plays and ran himself out of others, and he was practically a nonfactor as the Niners ran all over the Lions and their vaunted defensive front wall. It didn’t matter who Detroit kept running in there to supplement its line – the Niners kept running right at them. Suh finished with just two tackles to go with no sacks and no QB hits – and it’s difficult to think of a game in which the second-year veteran has made so little of an impact in his NFL career. The Lions got some good pressure around the edges on assorted passing downs, but not nearly enough to make a difference as Alex Smith was sacked only twice.
Win the turnover battle
NO: The Lions took away the ball from Alex Smith on a blind-side sack on San Francisco’s first offensive play, and it could have been a killer and tone-setter. But the Lions had to settle for a field goal. Smith also coughed it up with an interception on a bad overthrow, and the Lions turned that turnover into a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Those were the only two turnovers of the game, and Detroit turned them into 10 of its 19 points. Yet, Detroit’s victory in the turnover battle failed to make a difference in the outcome as San Francisco’s usually opportunistic defense did not produce a takeaway for the first time this season. The Niners did force two fumbles but the Lions recovered both.
Shut down run and force Lions to become one-dimensional
YES: The 49ers succeeded marvelously in their game plan to shut down the run and force the Lions to beat them through the air. Detroit rushed for just 66 yards and elusive lead back Jahvid Best was limited to 37 yards on 12 carries. The Lions went nowhere when they tried to run the ball with the lead and never could take control the game. Detroit threw 50 passes, and the Niners were loving it at the finish when the Lions had to throw after falling behind in the final minutes. When the Lions had to pass on their penultimate offensive possession, Stafford threw three consecutive incompletions, including on fourth down from his own 25-yard line with 1:16 to play in what amounted to Detroit’s last chance to avert defeat.
Strong to the finish
YES: You better believe it. The explosive Lions had outscored their previous four opponents 92-16 after halftime. But not this time. The 49ers won the second half 13-9, and they once again rallied from behind in the fourth quarter after Detroit had taken a 19-15 lead with 13:48 remaining to play. The 49ers then scored the game’s final 10 points – all of them coming in a 49-second span of the game’s final two minutes – and they earned every one of them, scoring the winning touchdown on a clutch fourth-and-6 play. That TD and the David Akers field goal that followed it both were set up by a relentless San Francisco defense that forced a three-and out and a four-and-out to set up its offense with short fields to produce those 10 points on the Niners’ final two offensive possessions.