The San Francisco 49ers travel to Detroit to open their 2021 campaign at Ford Field on Sunday afternoon when they take on the Lions. Sunday’s game will mark the third time the two teams have met to open the season in the Motor City since 1981. The previous two matchups were split with Detroit winning in 1981 and San Francisco winning in 1984. Those two seasons may ring a bell, as each would end with the 49ers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
This looks to be a lopsided affair. The oddsmakers have San Francisco near the top of the NFC while the Lions are at the bottom.
The Lions have won only 14 games over the last three seasons, and are led by a new head coach, Dan Campbell. Campbell has completely revamped the coaching staff, and along with the new general manager, Brad Holmes did the same to the Detroit roster.
Among the key changes was trading Matthew Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff. In addition to the move of quarterback, the Lions added running back Jamaal Williams from the Packers and drafted offensive tackle Penei Sewell in the first round.
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a look at the five burning questions that will likely determine the outcome on Sunday:
1. Can Kyle Shanahan figure out week 1?
Kyle Shanahan is considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL. For some reason that hasn’t translated to success on opening weekend. Through his 13-year career as an offensive coordinator and head coach Shanahan’s offenses have been able to manage only 19.3 points per game. That number goes down to only 14 during his four seasons at the helm in San Francisco, his offense reaching its highest points total last season with 20 in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Shanahan’s best performance on opening weekend came in 2012 as offensive coordinator with Washington when they defeated New Orleans 40-32 with a rookie quarterback leading the way.
The low point totals from the offense are a big reason why Shanahan has only one opening week victory as a head coach. San Francisco is the more talented team in this matchup, and Shanahan’s offense needs to make sure they don’t give this one away.
2. Can Jimmy Garoppolo figure out week 1?
Just like the head coach, Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled during the opening week during his time in San Francisco. In three starts as a 49er, Garoppolo’s stat line is 52-93, 686 yards with four touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 55.9. That’s awful.
It’s very likely that the only way for San Francisco to lose this game is if they give it away. They need Garoppolo to be smarter with the football than he has been in his previous season-opening performances.
3. Can the 49ers defense continue to own Jared Goff?
The Lions made news this offseason when they sent Matthew Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff. This move was one that should help the 49ers, at least in week one.
As a member of the Rams, Goff faced the San Francisco defense two times each season, and the 49ers have dominated the former Cal quarterback recently. Goff is 0-4 in his last four starts against San Francisco, going 78-139, 797 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions and a quarterback rating of only 70.4.
For the Lions to have any chance, Goff needs to be better. The problem is he will be facing a 49er pass rush featuring Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Samson Ebukam. The trio should be able to generate a good amount of pressure on Goff, which he struggles with. Over the last two seasons, Goff has managed a quarterback rating of only 54.4 when facing pressure.
4. Will Kyle Shanahan commit to the running game?
Kyle Shanahan’s offense begins with the running game which makes it odd that his play-calling on the opening week during his time with the 49er has been very pass heavy. In the four contests, Shanahan’s run the ball roughly on only roughly 40% of the plays.
For the 49ers to be successful on Sunday, the offense needs to be closer to an even 50-50 pass-run split.
By committing to the run, Shanahan will be utilizing the strength of the San Francisco offense. The offensive line is much better at run blocking than pass blocking, and the 49ers have a strong group of running backs that can handle the load. Grinding the game out on the ground may not always be exciting, but this will give the team its best chance to win.
5. How will the defense fill the gaps?
With Javon Kinlaw and Emmanuel Moseley not likely to play on Sunday, the depth of the 49ers’ defense will be tested early. To make the challenge even greater, backup defensive tackle Kevin Givens is likely to miss the game as well.
If Kinlaw does miss the game, look for Kentavius Street to step into the starting lineup. The 2018 fourth-round pick looked very good throughout training camp and started the final two games last season in place of Kinlaw.
The bigger question will likely be who replaces Moseley in the secondary. If he is unable to go the 49ers can turn to rookie Deommodore Lenoir, Josh Norman, or call Dontae Johnson up from the practice squad.
Lenoir started all three preseason games and looked good. Meanwhile, the 49ers signed Norman on Monday. The 33-year-old veteran missed all of the preseason, however, he kept himself in shape. According to defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, Norman is picking the defense up quickly.
49ers 20 Lions 16