There aren't many good action photos of him yet, but there will be.
He might actually be the key to victory this week. I'll explain below.
He might actually be the key to victory this week. I'll explain below.
As far as ACLB is concerned, yes. Suck it, ESPN. Score one more for Science and Journalism over "market research".
The 49ers and Lions are a combined 9-1 (with that one loss coming in overtime), leading their respective divisions, and stand a very real chance of repeating this confrontation in January. Which, given the 49ers are working on an 8 year playoff drought and the Lions on an 11 year one, has people like me and people like Neil a little too excited, as you can imagine.
I will of course be disappointed if the 49ers lose this game, but the exciting thing to realize is that at 4-1 they can afford to lose this game. They are way ahead of where most people expected to be at this point [a few people in the Marin Headlands who had them in the Super Bowl, but they've been eating Mushrooms and seen Joe Montana's Essence transmute into mist and enter Alex Smith's body through the nose and into the brain with their Third Eye, so we can safely discount their analysis for now], 3-1 against non-division opponents, a stat much more vital than the in-division record for a team that plays in the NFC West, which is almost housebroken but still piddles on the carpet from time to time, and you can forget about getting it to fetch with any consistency.
Which is good, because this one is going to be VERY tough for the 49ers.
The Lions are much improved, and its impossible for "experts" to ignore any longer. After years of "lol Same Old Lions" jokes written during the years of Historically Awful GM Matt Millen and recycled e'er since, the Lions are drafting much better, perhaps drafting the best, and forcing punditoids to discard their dear material that substitutes for actual analysis and study, and actually pay attention to what's happening in the real world. You don't have to look any further than Detroit's defensive line, which comes in rotating waves that constantly keeps talented, rested pass rushers on the field [including a time-travelling immortal demigod, but he doesn't seem to get as much playing time as the others]. Like the 49ers did in the 80s. Like Dallas did in the early 90s. Do you see why this has me deeply concerned yet? And why the rest of the football world is not laughing at Detroit anymore?
This generates a troubling matchup of Detroit's primary strength against the 49ers' biggest weakness, the offensive line. Which, admittedly, looks considerably less week now that Frank Gore is running better, and the woefully bad Chilo Rachal has been banished to the bench and his guard spot is now the personal fiefdom of the much more competent Adam Snyder. Detroit generally plays 4-3, traditionally more vulnerable to strong running, as they proved on both ends last Monday Night, regularly surrending significant gains to Chicago's Matt Forte, and getting a lot back with Jahvid Best against Chicago's 4-3. I'm immediately very glad the 49ers both play primarily 3-4 (to keep MISTERS PATRICK WILLIS and NAVORRO BOWMAN on the field at all times) and have Gore back in top form. They'll need to run the ball well to protect Alex Smith from these guys. They also need to run the ball because now both Braylon Edwards AND Josh Morgan are out with injuries, leaving 3 of the starting WR core, one of whom is Ted Ginn, who is the kick returner and infrequently sees action as a WR (I need not explain why to Dolphins fans, including new ACLB correspondent STARDUST). So the 49ers spent this week elevating Some Dude from the practice squad (thus, Some Dude might literally be his name for all I know) and extending a tryout offer to people like T.J. Houshmanzippitydoodah. Also, clock control is probably the only way they'll mitigate Calvin Johnson, as the 49ers secondary are fast, and are showing an encouraging nose for the ball the last few weeks, but they are small [for football players, anyway]. Calvin Johnson is fast and big. This is another dangerous matchup of strength vs weakness for the 49ers, but less worrisome than the other, if only because the 49ers showed good aptitude for absorbing the big bomb pass in a non-fatal way against Philadelphia. Johnson will probably get one big play in this game, but that in itself won't be the end of the world.
It's Detroit's pass that remains scary. Bear in mind that Dallas' own formidable pass rush is the main reason this week's game isn't a Battle Of Unbeatens. The 49ers had a 10 point 4th quarter lead at home and could not hold it because they could not throw for enough first downs to stay on the field long enough to kill the clock with running that itself was weaker due to injury and Chilo Rachal, thus Dallas got the time to tie the game. The 49ers are better up front now. But Detroit's line is stronger than Dallas'. You can expect the game to be won (and lost) here. I mean, line play generally does that in a football game, but it's doubly critical for this one.
The good news is Frank Gore is healthy, strong, and perhaps most importantly of all, no longer alone. Rookie Kendall Hunter (seen above) has been to the offense what NAVORRO BOWMAN has been to the defense. In Hunter, the 49ers at last have a second RB with complementary skills to Gore, so they can rotate the men in and out and not merely ride Frank Gore into the ground with Power Dives up the middle and dump off passes. After having Gore run into/over people, Hunter comes in and runs around them. He got the TD against Cincinnati. He extended the eventual TD drives against Philadelphia. He got 44 yards against Tampa on an old fashioned pulling guard SWEEP, an ancient relic of a running play rarely seen in the modern NFL and thus widely believed to have been entombed alongside Vince Lombardi in a massive Cheese Pyramid just outside Green Bay's city limits. Hunter would be the best new story about the 49ers offense this year, except it's hard to put anything above the minor miracle that is "Alex Smith Doesn't Suck Anymore." Although Alex having Josh Morgan to lean on on 3rd downs was a major factor towards that end that will no longer be there. Perhaps this will mean more of Vernon Davis. Of course we 49er fans consider "the sun rose today" to be something that should mean More Of Vernon Davis. He never quite seems to get the ball as much at he should, considering that LBs are too slow to cover him and DBs are too small to tackle him, which he demonstrates once he actually does get the ball, and did so at Tampa's expense last week. If there's a way they can indirectly offset the matchup problem Calvin Johnson presents, it'll be the comparable matchup problem presented by Davis.
I knew coming in this would be a tough one for the 49ers, especially on the road, but it won't exactly be easy for Detroit, either. But whichever team loses this game still stands a very real chance of getting another shot at the winner in 3 months. Which, given where these teams have been in recent years, is pretty amazing. These are still Strange Times, as Neil has often said, but perhaps no longer so Terrible.