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San Francisco 49ers

Four Matchups to Watch in San Francisco’s Home Opener Against Detroit

Jon Chik

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49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner

Is it premature to call a Week 2 matchup a “must-win” game? Probably not if you’re a member for 49er Faithful. Following a tough loss marred by missed opportunities in Minnesota last week, the Niners play host to a reeling Lions team that was thoroughly embarrassed by the Jets 48-17 on Monday Night Football.

Here are the matchups we’ll be keeping an eye on in Week 2.

San Francisco’s offensive line vs. Detroit’s front seven

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: Games are won and lost in the trenches. Cliché? Maybe. True? Absolutely. And after being outmatched though not necessarily overwhelmed by Minnesota’s stout front seven in Week 1, San Francisco’s big boys seemingly get a reprieve against the Lions, as Detroit entered the season with the No. 26 run defense and the No. 24 pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Lions were gashed by New York’s backfield combo of Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, who combined to take the rock 22 times for 162 yards, including a 62-touchdown rumble by Crowell, so Alfred Morris and Matt Brieda should get chances to shine after each showed small flashes against the Vikes.

Devon Kennard and Ezekiel Ansah each notched a sack for Detroit last week, yet only one player in the Lions’ front seven received a grade higher than 72.7 from Pro Football Focus last season (defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who received a 75.9 but recorded only 20 tackles as a member of the Titans in 2017).

Minnesota’s outmuscling of the Niners in the season opener can be chalked up to several factors: Injuries to starting right guard Mike Person and backup Josh Garnett, Mike McGlinchey being forced to take over at right guard and play the position for the first time in his life in his pro debut and an affluence of talent on the Vikings’ defense.

Look for the Niner offensive line to find its rhythm and fare far better against a Detroit crew that couldn’t stop a nosebleed on Monday night.

DT DeForest Buckner vs. LG Frank Ragnow and Detroit’s offensive line

How could any Niner fan possibly take their eyes off DeForest Buckner? The fast-rising superstar defensive tackle showed an incredible motor against the Vikings, kicking off his third pro season by routinely bull-rushing his way into the backfield and showing impressive agility to notch 2.5 sacks and seven tackles.

Buckner, who led the NFL with 19 quarterback hits last season but registered only three sacks, singlehandedly buoyed a pass rush that was one of San Francisco’s most glaring weaknesses coming into the season, though he’ll have a stiff challenge going up against a Detroit offensive line that was ranked eighth prior to the start of the campaign and did not yield a sack to New York last week, despite Matthew Stafford and Matt Cassel combining to throw 52 passes. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Detroit line from receiving poor marks from PFF for its Week 1 performance.

Right guard Frank Ragnow, who received a dismal 41.2 grade from PFF in Week 1, will be charged with the unenviable task of trying to contain San Francisco’s resident force of destruction. And if Ragnow receives help from center Graham Glasgow (71.1 grade in Week 1), the door will swing open for DeFo’s linemates to take advantage of their one-on-one matchups.

QB Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Detroit’s secondary

It’s easy to include the starting quarterback in this article every week, but perhaps doing so is more appropriate than usual after Jimmy Garoppolo struggled mightily against the Vikings.

Jimmy G was certainly not the only Niner to have issues against Minnesota’s outstanding defense, but a strong performance against a lesser Detroit secondary would alleviate whatever concerns arose after the franchise quarterback was seemingly to blame for all three of his interceptions last week and sailed a few passes, most notably when he missed George Kittle in the back of the endzone for what could have been a four-yard touchdown.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Lions’ secondary as the league’s No. 12 unit heading into the season, but that didn’t stop Jets’ rookie quarterback Sam Darnold from completing 16-of-21 passes for 198 yards, two scores and an interception in Week 1.

Despite the major hiccup, Detroit’s secondary still boasts talented playmakers, including cornerback Darius Slay (88.1 PFF grade in 2017, eight interceptions last season) and safety Glover Quin (89.0 PFF grade in 2017)

Considering Detroit surrendered 48 points on Monday, however, this is still a plus matchup for San Francisco’s franchise signal-caller and a golden opportunity for him to play at the level he reached during the Niners’ late-season surge in 2017.

WR Dante Pettis vs. CB Nevin Lawson

From his first to his second game as a professional football player, Dante Pettis has arguably already gone from “top backup at all three receiver positions” to “featured player on the offense.” The Washington product turned in a mixed bag in his NFL debut last week, but his acrobatic 22-yard touchdown reception was a thing of beauty, and with Marquise Goodwin ruled out for Sunday, Pettis has been thrust into the limelight.

The rookie wideout could be matched up against cornerback Nevin Lawson, who received a poor 58 mark from PFF a season ago.

With Goodwin in street clothes, Garoppolo is likely to look in the direction of his young wideout, as evidenced by Pettis’ six targets in Minnesota (tied for third-most on the team). The elusive speedster, who broke two big plays against Minnesota and had a chance for an additional touchdown catch, is a threat to do serious damage anytime he touches the ball, and Lawson is certain to have his hands full trying to keep up.

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