49ers vs. Lions NFL Schedule Preview: Protecting Alex Smith Is Key

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 09: Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers in action during their against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Candlestick Park on October 9, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The San Francisco 49ers are sitting atop the NFC West with a 4-1 record and are heading to Detroit to take on the 5-0 Lions. It's a wholly exciting game on paper, much more so than most of us would have figured just a couple months ago. For more on the game and the team in general, go to Niners Nation, SB Nation's San Francisco 49ers blogs.

The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in a pretty darn good situation. Despite a win by the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, they remain in a great place atop the NFC West and in the conference in general, sporting a 4-1 record, with the lone blemish an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, on a blown play. They're coming off a dominating win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a good win that just might have sucked the rest of the life out of the Philadelphia Eagles, overcoming a 20+ point differential to win in impressive fashion,

The Buccaneers had been 3-1 coming into the game at Candlestick Park, and the 49ers executed on all levels. They stopped LeGarrete Blount, they made Josh Freeman look terrible, and they dealt with the Tampa Bay defense like no team has this season. That's an awfully good Buccaneers team, and a great win, especially by such a margin. Now, they're hitting the road before a bye week, to take on the Detroit Lions.

Detroit just wrapped up a Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears, in which they were largely dominant. They saw Jahvid Best run for 163 yards and a touchdown, taking control of the game early and sealing the deal late. Best has been waiting for a game like that one, and should enter the game against the 49ers with a lot of confidence in his own abilities.

That being said, the 49ers' run defense has been a strength, so if the Lions' offense hopes to function through Best, they might struggle. Even without Isaac Sopoaga, who missed the Tampa Bay game and still is not confirmed for this game, the 49ers' run defense is among the best in the league. Justin Smith is as great as always, while Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman ensure no running back burns them for huge yardage.

Fortunately for the Lions, they boast a strong pass rush, and that's been the key to beating the 49ers lately. Maybe they don't need Jahvid Best to carry them, if they can get to Alex Smith like they got to Jay Cutler, they'll certainly prevent San Francisco from putting up 48 points like they did against the Buccaneers. They did only have two sacks on Cutler, but it seems like Ndamukong Suh and the rest hit him on every other play. 

For the 49ers, it will be about how much they can get out of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in the passing game, as Braylon Edwards is still out and Josh Morgan just had surgery on a broken bone in his lower leg, an injury he suffered with under five minutes left in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. Frank Gore will need to deal with Detroit's monster line, but it's a task he feels up to after consecutive games of 100+ yards. Walker had a touchdown early against the Bucs and will look to be used more with Morgan's absence.

Jim Harbaugh and his team have gotten the 49ers off to a great start, but Jim Schwartz and his Lions are hitting their stride better than just about any team in the league. All-in-all, this is a game that should be more exciting many times over than we might have thought it would be just a few months ago.

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