Matchups: 49ers offense vs. Lions defense

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
8:14
PM ET
Sure, the San Francisco 49ers won their first few games, but their offense wasn't doing much.

There would come a time, the thinking went, when coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman would have to "open up" the offense. And at that point, the suspicions went, quarterback Alex Smith would suddenly reveal himself as a scatter-shooting turnover machine.

It's debatable to what degree the 49ers have opened up their offense. They've performed more efficiently, for sure, and Smith appears to be getting better, not worse. That makes San Francisco's offensive matchup against the 5-0 Detroit Lions' defense in Week 6 additionally intriguing.

The statistical rankings shown in the chart draw from very disparate per-game figures. The 49ers averaged 214 yards per game through Week 3. The average is 430 yards over their past two games.

It's reasonable to expect a viable San Francisco offense to show up in Detroit on Sunday. It's also fair to wonder whether the 49ers' offensive line, though improved recently, can function adequately against a deep, talented defensive front and amid deafening crowd noise. Leaving right tackle Anthony Davis alone against Lions defensive end Cliff Avril would invite trouble, I think, but the 49ers also have to funnel resources toward Ndamukong Suh.

It's obvious the 49ers will help their offensive line with two or more tight ends a high percentage of the time. They're shorthanded at wide receiver without Braylon Edwards and Josh Morgan. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker combined for three touchdown receptions in Week 5. Both rank among the three best available receiving targets on the team. They need to be on the field together just about all the time.

I expect the Lions to play coverage and rely upon their front four, led by Suh, to get pressure. Smith has completed all 10 pass attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns when opponents have sent a defensive back as a pass-rusher. He has completed 71.4 percent for 330 yards with four touchdowns and a 9.4-yard average per attempt when teams have sent more than four rushers overall. Those figures, provided by ESPN Stats & Information, are better than his numbers against standard pressure (63.7 percent passing, three touchdowns, one interception).

Smith has performed ably in throwing quickly with three-step drops. Those tactics helped the 49ers finish their 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay without any sacks. This game against Detroit stands as a tremendous opportunity for Smith and the offense. Pass this test and it'll be tough for anyone, anywhere, to question the 49ers' credentials on offense, no matter how much coaches open it up.

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