49ers look to slay Lions’ “two-headed monster” in the running game

SANTA CLARA — It was true in 1957 when the Detroit Lions rushed for three touchdowns to turn a 27-7 deficit into an eventual 31-27 win over the 49ers at Kezar Stadium to reach the NFL Championship Game at Kezar Stadium.

It was true in 1983 when the Lions ran for 188 yards on 35 carries, including 114 yards and two touchdowns from Billy Sims in an NFC divisional playoff at Candlestick Park when the 49ers escaped with a 24-23 win because of a missed Detroit field goal at the gun.

And it’s the hard truth when the 49ers host Detroit in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium with a berth to Super Bowl LVIII on the line: Old-school football will have a lot to do with which team winds up in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

The top-seeded 49ers (13-5) and third-seeded Lions (14-5) are alike in that they have passing games that go from good to great with Brock Purdy and Jared Goff when the running game is on track and defenders are on their heels.

“The Lions, regardless of who they play, they stick with the run,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “They do it every game. It’s a big part of what they do. They’re very balanced. I think they’re very similar to our offense.”

While the 49ers have relied on first-team All-Pro and NFL leading rusher Christian McCaffrey as their lead runner with 1,495 yards, the Lions counter with veteran David Montgomery (1,015 yards) and Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Jahmyr Gibbs (945 yards). McCaffrey has 21 touchdowns. Montgomery, at 224 pounds, and Gibbs, at 200, have combined for 23 — with Montgomery getting 13 and Gibbs 10.

When Shanahan said the Lions were “a lot like us: he wasn’t kidding statistically.

The Lions were seventh in rushing this season with 2,311 on 500 carries and 27 touchdowns on the ground. The 49ers were slightly better, finishing fifth with 2,389 yards on 499 carries and also had 27 touchdowns.

A big, athletic offensive line led by tackle Penei Sewell has given Detroit a physicality that has benefitted Goff and the passing game.

“They have big guys who are athletic who play with the right mindset, then you add the two-headed monster at running back in Montgomery and Gibbs,” 49ers linebacker Fred Warner said. “You’ve got your one-two punch, you’ve got your physical (runner) and your speed, quickness. They run downhill, they can hit you on the outside.”

The 49ers aren’t quite the immovable object they were a year ago, giving up 4.1 yards per carry against the run as opposed to 3.4 last season. They’ve had their moments of very strong play, but others in which they struggled — most notably against Cleveland, Arizona and last week in a 24-21 divisional win over Green Bay.

The Packers’ Aaron Jones became the first player to break 100 yards in 44 games against the 49ers with 108 yards on 18 carries.

Against the Lions, the 49ers have two backs to worry about.

“They do a great job running the ball,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “I think the Montgomery and Gibbs one-two combination is probably the best we’ve seen all year. Different style of runners, but they’re both effective in what they do.”

Who can catch lightin’ in a bottle@jahmyr_gibbs1 | #AllGrit | NBC pic.twitter.com/OCVfV8nKvS

— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 21, 2024

In Wilks’ session with the media Thursday, the run defense was a consistent theme and the danger that lurks when overloading to stop it.

“You put a lot of emphasis on trying to stop those guys, so sometimes you get a little more aggressive, getting downhill,” Wilks said. “That’s not only with the linebackers, but also in the secondary, which now exposes you to a vertical passing game over the top. That’s something that we’re going to have to try to diminish and how you do that is trying to make them one-dimensional.”

One encouraging sign for the 49ers: The Lions, in their last regular-season game and playoff wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are averaging 87.7 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry.

If the 49ers can keep the Detroit runners under control, they’ll have a better chance getting after a relatively stationary target in Goff on passing plays.

When defensive end Clelin Ferrell suffered a knee injury, the 49ers lost a fairly anonymous starter on a team of stars. But Ferrell’s specialty happened to be setting an edge to turn opposing runners inside. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Chase Young, who is more explosive but not necessarily as disciplined when it comes to setting an edge.

“We definitely got hit on a lot of crack tosses and weren’t fitting ’em great, but it’s a play we’re going to see with them from (Gibbs) so we’ve emphasized it a lot,” defensive end Nick Bosa said.

Bosa thinks the 49ers will be better with defensive tackle Arik Armstead back for his second straight week after missing five games. In-season acquisitions Young and Randy Gregory have gotten better within the scheme and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, Bosa believes, is coming off one of his best games.

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Linebacker Dre Greenlaw warned against thinking there is an inevitable carryover after Jones got his 108 for the Packers.

“Aaron Jones is a real, real good back. He doesn’t run like a little guy. He runs like he’s the biggest guy on the field,” Greenlaw said “Are we worried about Detroit running the ball? It’s our job to go out and stop it. It goes with understanding fits and doing our job so even if it’s not the perfect call, we can still make it a great call.

“We don’t panic about what happened last week. We live and learn from it and move forward.”

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