The San Francisco 49ers are set to kick off their highly anticipated 2021 campaign on the road to take on a new-look Detroit Lions team in the season opener on Sept. 12. There are a number of storylines for both clubs as Detroit hosts a number of new faces, including head coach Dan Campbell and former division rival, quarterback Jared Goff, and the 49ers anticipating the return of a number of key veterans.
In the season opener of the Four Downs series, 49ers.com is joined by Lions team reporter Dannie Rogers to break down several storylines for both teams heading into Sunday's game and key players and position groups to keep an eye out for in Week 1.
1st Down: Matchup You're Most Looking Forward To
@KeianaMartinTV: Jared Goff vs. 49ers Defensive Line
I feel like if you poll anyone around the league, there might be a unanimous agreement that all eyes will be on the 49ers defensive line this week. The talent, the speed and the potential are there. Health and depth are the two main factors that will weigh into the unit's success in 2021. There are a number of players returning from injuries, namely Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and some new faces that have helped bolster the unit this offseason.
But beyond their performance, I am interested to see how Goff fares in his new digs against a familiar foe. Goff owned a 3-5 record against the 49ers during his time with the Los Angeles Rams, his worst mark against any team in the NFL. Goff will orchestrate behind a star-studded offensive line that heads into Sunday with some question marks. Left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a hand injury this week and is expected to “be out for a bit,” likely moving rookie tackle Penei Sewell opposite Bosa in his NFL debut. Sewell has a massive responsibility of protecting his QB's blind side on Sunday and is likely to get his first taste of the NFL against the former Defensive Rookie of the Year.
@DannieRogers__: Lions Offensive Line vs. Nick Bosa
What a great test for the line in Week 1. Bosa has a quick first step and is a dynamic rusher. He can play the run just as good as the pass and creates disasters for teams that put themselves into long downs. That's the first key for the Lions, don't put themselves in situations where their backs are up against the wall and secondly, they'll have to continue adjusting to the pressure throughout the game.
2nd Down: Expectations of QB1
@KeianaMartinTV: Garoppolo's Numbers Prove 49ers Can Win with Him In
The entire locker room has taken notice of Jimmy Garoppolo's demeanor this offseason. Confident, focused and fiery are just a handful of the adjectives used to describe how the quarterback has approached this season – and rightfully so. Trey Lance is sitting in the wings waiting for his number to be called. But in the meantime, it's Garoppolo's team. The 49ers believe they can win with Garoppolo, and he has the numbers (and record) to prove it. But a clean bill of health is crucial if the signal caller hopes to keep the rookie at bay.
@DannieRogers__: Goff Will Deliver Consistency and Comfortability
With QB1 Jared Goff playing his first season in a Lions jersey, I'm still expecting him to deliver consistency and comfortability within the offense. He's playing behind a veteran offensive line and a rookie tackle who's been dubbed as a specimen and showed growth in the preseason where he was known for not making the same mistake twice. He'll also have targets like tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D'Andre Swift back, who we've only seen in action at practice. Goff has a chip on his shoulder in Detroit and you can tell by the way he carries himself. He's been to the biggest stage in the NFL and he knows how to win, so seeing him communicate with the pieces around him constantly at practice and be the leader on the offense has eased any doubts I have of a new QB1 in a new offense with a new offensive coordinator.
3rd Down: Under-the-Radar Player to Watch in Week 1
@KeianaMartinTV: WR Trent Sherfield
Sunday will be the first time in a long time the 49ers have had a fully healthy group of pass catchers heading into a contest. While eyes will be on George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, I suggest fans get familiar with Trent Sherfield. Originally brought in for special teams, the former Arizona Cardinals wideout was one of the highlights of training camp and flashed through the preseason, leading all 49ers receivers in each of the team's three contests, and hauling in 5-of-7 targets for 156 yards.
Even former teammate Larry Fitzgerald mentioned how he's excited to see what he does with his new team. He has already begun building a rapport with both of the 49ers quarterbacks and is quietly inserting himself into the conversation as San Francisco's WR3. Heading into Sunday, the biggest question is can the receiver carry his preseason flashes over to Sundays.
@DannieRogers__: OLB Julian Okwara
So much of this Lion's roster is young that you're naturally going to have more players under the radar come Week 1. Outside linebacker Julian Okwara, who's in his second year in the league and a former third round pick, was plagued with injuries last season; however, he was given a ton of reps in the preseason and came away with stats and big plays. Most people know of his big brother Romeo, but the younger Okwara brother is one to watch.
4th Down: Position Group That is Key to a Win
@KeianaMartinTV: Pass Catchers
We're already aware of what San Francisco's defense is capable of and we know that Shanahan's preferred mode of travel is on the ground. So, I'm focusing on what the 49ers can do in the air. We've discussed Garoppolo's confidence heading into this year, which should only be amplified with a new-look offensive line securing the pocket. I'm eager to see how Aiyuk takes a step forward in Year 2 and his counterpart, Samuel, continues to rack up the yards after the catch. With San Francisco's mix of running backs, tight ends and receivers, Garoppolo has plenty of options to spread the ball around against a Lions defense that ranked third worst against the pass in 2020.
@DannieRogers__: Offensive Line
The offensive line for the Lions is one of the most experienced units coming into this season. First round draft pick Penei Sewell was added to the mix and has learned a lot in the preseason. He also has veterans in Pro Bowler Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker to lean on for guidance. With QB Jared Goff new to the Lions, having his offensive line unit be the one that's the most experienced and have spent years building up chemistry is crucial.