Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (0-0) vs. San Francisco 49ers (0-0)

The coaches: Lions-Dan Campbell (5-7 overall, 0-0 with Lions); 49ers-Kyle Shanahan (29-35 overall, 29-35 with 49ers).

Last game: Season opener for both teams.

Last meeting: Sept. 16, 2018: 49ers won, 30-27.

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Key matchups

Lions OT Penei Sewell vs. 49ers DE Nick Bosa — It isn’t clear who the Lions will start at left tackle, with Campbell saying the team is considering three options: Sewell, right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and swing tackle Matt Nelson. Sewell struggled in pass protection this preseason while playing right tackle, but he played left tackle in college and may be more comfortable at that position. Regardless of where he lines up, he could see time against Bosa, the talented pass rusher who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Bosa plays primarily at right defensive end, and if the Lions don’t keep him out of the backfield he will wreck their game plan.

Lions CB Jeff Okudah vs. 49ers WR Deebo Samuel — Tight end George Kittle is a bigger matchup problem for the Lions, but Okudah’s play will be under a magnifying glass early this season as he looks to rebound from a tough rookie campaign. Some of Okudah’s struggles last season were due to a groin injury that prevented him from opening up and running at top speed. He underwent surgery this offseason, so that excuse is no more. Samuel is the type of explosive weapon who will challenge the Lions vertically and horizontally, which should give Okudah the opportunity to make plays.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. 49ers run defense

The Lions want to run the ball this year, and they need to run the ball efficiently Sunday to keep San Francisco’s explosive offense off the field. D’Andre Swift faces no workload limitations after missing all of the preseason with a groin injury, and he should get a healthy dose of work as the team’s projected starter.

Swift averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and will be spelled by Jamaal Williams. Expect Williams to be the Lions’ primary third-down back for his blocking ability, something that could be even more important given Decker’s health. The Lions have a solid offensive line, led by Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, but it is in turmoil this week with a rookie starting at one tackle spot and a question mark at the other.

The 49ers maintained one of the NFL’s best rushing defenses last season even as they dealt with a slew of injuries. DeMeco Ryans takes over as defensive coordinator, but kept much of Robert Saleh’s scheme in place and has Fred Werner, one of the best middle linebackers on the planet. Edge: 49ers

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Lions pass offense vs. 49ers pass defense

Jared Goff is in a tough place in his Lions debut. Not only is he throwing to a receiving corps that is among the least accomplished in the NFL, but Decker’s injury has left him playing behind an offensive line that will be without its best edge protector.

Goff struggled with turnovers last year with the Los Angeles Rams and must take care of the ball Sunday. Goff is more risk averse than his predecessor, Matthew Stafford, and was content checking the ball down throughout the preseason. The Lions do have two dangerous weapons in the passing game in Swift and T.J. Hockenson, while Tyrell Williams should be Goff’s favorite target at receiver.

Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and Javon Kinlaw highlight a stout 49ers pass rush, and while they rank fourth in the NFL in pass rush last season, there are some question marks in the back end. If Emmanuel Moseley can’t go because of a hamstring injury, the 49ers could start rookie Ambry Thomas (Michigan) at cornerback. Edge: 49ers

49ers run offense vs. Lions run defense

The 49ers don’t have a great running back, but they do have a great rushing attack. Shanahan employs a highly-effective, fast-paced, play-action scheme that tests a defense’s discipline. The 49ers have finished in the top half of the NFL in rushing each of the past three seasons, and were the NFL’s second-best run team (at 144.1 ypg.) just two years ago.

Raheem Mostert has averaged 5.6 yards per carry during his four seasons in San Francisco, but has never been a full-time starter until now. He is expected to split time in the backfield with rookie Trey Sermon, but at least early on could get the majority of the workload. The Lions spent the week preparing for two 49ers quarterbacks, Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance, whose dual-threat ability in the option game could be especially challenging in goal line situations.

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The Lions have rebuilt a defense that allowed 134.9 yards rushing per game last season. Rookie nose tackle Alim McNeill faces a veteran center Alex Mack, and it’s his job to help free inside linebackers Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone up to make plays. The Lions feel good about their ability to stop the run, but the 49ers have plenty of potential for big plays. Edge: 49ers

49ers pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Lance missed practice time the past two weeks with a finger injury, and the expectation is that Garoppolo handles most of the quarterback duties. He’s a league-average-type signal caller, who had too many turnovers (13 interceptions, 5 lost fumbles) in his last full season starting in 2019.

The Lions need to win the turnover battle to win this game, which means they need big games from edge rushers Romeo Okwara (10 sacks last season) and Trey Flowers. The Lions have an extremely young secondary — Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye are the only two cornerbacks that have played an NFL coverage snap — and the 49ers use everyone, including fullback Kyle Juszczyk, in the pass game.

Juszczyk is a unique weapon, but Garoppolo’s favorite target is tight end George Kittle, who might be the best all-around player at the position in the NFL. Both Kittle and top receiver Deebo Samuel are coming off injury-shortened seasons, but both are big-play threats and mismatch problems for the Lions defense. Edge: 49ers

Special teams

The Lions enter the season as a bit of a mixed bag on special teams. They should have an exceptionally strong punt team, led by Pro Bowler Jack Fox, but their kicking unit seems unreliable at best. Austin Seibert appears poised to handle kicking duties this week, though the Lions protected Zane Gonzalez on their practice squad as well. Seibert wasn’t with the team in the preseason and has not been great on extra points in his short career. The Lions also are breaking in a new long snapper in Scott Daly, but they do have good coverage units, led by Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Kalif Raymond is an experienced return man.

The 49ers checked in near the bottom of longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings last year, when they were besieged by injuries, but Robbie Gould had a bounce-back year making 19 of 23 field goals. Gould doesn’t have a hammer leg at this point of his career, but both he and punter Mitch Wishnowsky are reliable veterans. The 49ers do not have a clear return man, though receiver Brandon Aiyuk could handle punts in Week 1. Edge: 49ers

Prediction

The NFL did not do the Lions any favors by sending a good 49ers team to town for Campbell’s first game as head coach, and things got even tougher with Decker’s injury this week. The Lions have an incredibly thin margin for error given the makeup of their young roster, and San Francisco is a talented, veteran team with a well-coached offense and dangerous pass rush. Maybe having a stadium full of fans for the first time in two years will help even the playing field, but even then the Lions don’t have enough offense to win a high-scoring game. They’ll surprise an opponent or two that underestimates them, but I don’t see that happening in Week 1. Pick: 49ers 30, Lions 17

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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