Young Lions look to stay unbeaten as surging Niners come to Motown
There is no shortage of interesting stories with the undefeated -- say it again, Motown! -- Detroit Lions this season. That's what happens when you go more than a decade without any interesting stories outside the franchise's stunning run of ineptitude.
But with apologies to Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best, Jim Schwartz and that opportunistic defense, is anyone in the NFL cooler right now than Calvin Johnson?
After joining Cris Carter as the only players to catch two touchdown passes in four straight games, Johnson was held to one measly touchdown on Monday night. The fact that it was an electrifying 73-yard bomb to open the scoring and helped the Lions win their biggest game in a decade in front of a record Ford Field crowd is somewhat noteworthy.
So five games (and five wins) into the season, Johnson has nine touchdowns. He's on pace to catch 28 or so touchdowns this season, which would be an all-time record. Probably not going to happen.
But to put Johnson's start in perspective, compare it to the greatest scoring seasons ever by a wideout. That would be New England's Randy Moss, who scored 23 in 2007, and San Francisco's Jerry Rice, who scored 22, in 1987.
Moss had seven TDs through five games, as the Patriots embarked on their historic run to 16-0, and had at least five games after that where he scored multiple touchdowns, including four in the 10th game of the season.
Not bad, right?
Until you look at Rice's sicko '87 numbers.
How 'bout 16 touchdowns over his last seven games? And in a strike-shortened season. Rice didn't play in any of the 49ers' replacement games (Trivia: Joe Montana did) and still ended up with 22 TDs in just 12 games. Incredible. Then again, so is 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns for the player Jon Gruden simply calls "The GOAT" ("Greatest Of All Time").
Johnson is worlds away from those other-worldly numbers, but at just 26 and barely into his fifth season, this is going to be fun to watch.
The Lions are ranked 12th in total defense through five games, one notch ahead of the 49ers at 13th. Not bad, but not great, either. This is where coaches will tell you statistics are for losers. No one will argue that wins and losses are the ultimate stats, but the truth is some digits with decimal points do shed a bright light on a team's success.
"We may be underrated right now," 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "But if we keep winning and keep playing well, we'll be good-rated where we need to be."
Well put, so here are some stats that go a long way toward revealing why two of the losingest NFL franchises over the last decade have won nine of 10 games this season:
• San Francisco has forced 14 turnovers, which is second in the league, along with their turnover ratio of plus-10. Detroit is right behind them with 11 takeaways, good for a plus-7 margin.
• The 49ers have given up just four touchdowns in 15 red-zone situations, easily the best in the league at 26.7 percent. The Lions come in third at 35.3 percent (6 scores in 17 possessions inside the 20). Note: The "Chart of the Week" item below further flushes out on the Lions' dominance -- especially in game-changing situations -- on this front.
• Detroit tailback Jahvid Best ran wild in Monday night's romp of the rival Chicago Bears, rushing only 12 times for 163 yards, one of those carries was an 88-yard touchdown sprint that marked the second longest touchdown in Lions history. You better believe he got the attention of Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his troops. San Francisco has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since Green Bay's Ryan Grant went for 129 on Nov. 22, 2009, a run of 27 straight games. So maybe it's time the casual fan took notice of that 49ers front seven and look beyond He-Man tackling machine Patrick Willis (who had 18 stops and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after last week's 48-3 romp over Tampa Bay). Defensive end Justin Smith was supposed to be a first-round bust at Cincinnati, but he's beasting for the Niners. And Bowman, not Willis, is actually the team's leading tackler with 44 to date.
"When it comes to our front seven, we pride ourselves every single day, every single week, to stop the run and make a team one-dimensional," Bowman said. "Detroit, those guys are undefeated and are having a great season, but we're having a heckuva season too. It's going to be a challenge and we're excited about going to play a team that's doing what people didn't expect ... like us."
Fans throughout the nation's capital had to let out a collective groan last Sunday night when they first saw Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers intercepting Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman and returning the ball 31 yards for a tempo-setting touchdown.
That's because Rogers, who the Redskins took with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2005 draft (some 15 spots ahead of Aaron Rodgers; not that they've needed a quarterback recently), caught footballs as if he was playing with lobster claws instead of gloves.
Carlos "Scissorhands" totaled eight interceptions in 76 games in Washington, but has three in five games as a 49er and is tied for the NFL lead. In fact, Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson this week said Rogers "turns into a receiver when the ball is in the air," proving perception (at least in the Bay Area) is reality.
In Washington, when the ball was in in the air, Rogers turned into a basketball backboard.
He's one of several unsung players on a Lions defense that is finding its identity under Coach Jim Schwartz and coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Avril, a fourth-year pro out of Purdue, was second on the team in sacks last season (behind you-know-Suh) with 8.5 and has 21 through four seasons, including two in 2011. Though undersized, Avril is fast, quick and an ideal fit for the wide-split "9-technique" rush end (spill runs inside, get after the QB on passing downs) the Lions have used so well the last couple seasons. Here are excerpts from a chat with SI.com this week.
(Laughing) "I think we're hand in hand. They've been waiting for both teams to do something big for a long time, so I'd say it's a tie."
(More laughing) -- "Yeah, but I truly believe it."
"Man, the whole 0-16 thing, I'll be honest, I didn't realize how bad things really were and what it all really meant until after the season. It was my first year. I didn't know a lot about the NFL or what I was supposed to expect. I was a rookie, just trying to make a name for myself and get more snaps on defense. I didn't necessarily think about how bad -- you know, really, really bad -- we were until after the season had ended and I was like, 'Wow, did that just happen? Did we really not win one, single game?" It was a crazy year. I learned a lot. I learned that you better stay on your Ps and Qs in the NFL because a lot of guys who were here my rookie year, maybe 60 or 70 percent of them, weren't here the next year. I guess I was fortunate enough to make the cut."
"It gave us a lot of confidence. We knew the talent we had on our team, the kind of leaders on our team. So to sort of see it coming together -- the winning streak and the winning record -- it's not a surprise to us that we can play football. It's a surprise to everybody else. They're like, 'These guys are for real,' but we knew what we could do. We also know its a long a season and we're nowhere near where we want to go. Our goal is like everyone else's -- a championship."
"And I know they appreciate it, too. I'm a big Twitterer. Guys on Twitter let me know how big and how much it means to them. This is a big football town and they've been waiting for us to win forever. Even when we were 0-16, we had people in the stands. Now they might have had bags over their heads, but they were there, paying money and supporting us even though we were bad."
"I don't think so. Schwartz is big on, 'Enjoying the game for about 12 hours,' then it's on to the next one. That's how it's been all season. We win on Sunday and Monday we figure the pros and cons of the game, then you keep it moving. This week was the same thing. Came in Tuesday, our day off, and some of us broke down film, Schwartz went through the pros and cons and we turned to the 49ers. I don't think guys are getting caught up in the hype of being 5-0. We know there's a lot of football left to play. And we're having too much fun doing what we're doing -- and winning."
As promised above. Detroit's defense has fended off five of six fourth-down conversion attempts. That's 16.7 percent and that's excellent -- but that's only part of the story. Four times the Lions have been on defense for a critical fourth-and-1 play this season -- three of them inside the Detroit red zone and on the road -- and all four times the Lions have stuffed the play.
This is a wicked trap-door game, especially for the Lions, a young team (on the dreaded short week) coming into its own and dealing with prosperity the likes of which the franchise hasn't seen in a lifetime. The 49ers, while not undefeated, are in a very similar situation, having to put one of its most lopsided victories in recent memory behind them.
But the Niners also are on the road and probably not the team the Lions are right now. And there's the matter of quarterback Alex Smith. Can we really and truly trust him completely just yet?