DETROIT -- A couple weeks ago, this game looked a lot more promising for the 49ers than it does right now.
While the game matches a pair of teams that have known for the second half of the season that there would be no playoff chances, 49ers and Detroit Lions are going in different directions. The 49ers (4-10) continue to struggle with poor play and injuries, while the Lions (5-9) are playing well as they near the finish line. Here are five storylines for Sunday’s game at Ford Field:
1. O-line looks to the future
One of the major issues for the 49ers as they move into next season is the offensive line. Guard Alex Boone might have played his final game. The 49ers on Saturday placed him on injured reserve with to a knee injury. Marcus Martin is out with a concussion. Rookie Trent Brown could have a future at right tackle, and he is expected to see a lot of playing time in Sunday’s game. How he reacts to blitzes early in the game could determine if the 49ers stick with him for the entire game. Andrew Tiller showed promise at right guard, and he could see more action on the left side. If Brown and Tiller show some good things, the 49ers might feel better about the line going into the offseason.
2. Tomsula’s statement
Coach Jim Tomsula is probably a popular man in the locker room for delaying the team’s trip to Detroit for a day to enable his players to spend much of Christmas with their families. Will they repay him with a strong effort? As of right now, it appears likely Tomsula will get a second season as 49ers head coach after signing a four-year contract in January. But if the team completely falls apart, it might force CEO Jed York to reconsider his plan.
3. Gabbert looks to bounce back
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been OK since taking over for Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the season. But at some point for Gabbert – and for offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, too – the 49ers need to prove they can score more than 20 points in 60 minutes of football. The 49ers have not topped 20 points in regulation since their Week 6 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. (They scored 26 in an overtime victory against Chicago three weeks ago.) The 49ers rank last in the NFL in scoring. San Francisco and Dallas are the only teams that have not scored 30 points in a game this season. The Lions’ defense ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 25.9 points per game.
4. Johnson-Johnson challenge
Dontae Johnson did not know he would play most of last week’s game against Cincinnati, but he took over at right cornerback in place of Kenneth Acker early in the game and held up well. At 6 foot 3, Johnson appears to provide the best physical matchup against 6-5 wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who has posted six consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Lions. “You get to showcase what you’re doing and see how you measure up against to the best,” Dontae Johnson said. “He’s freak-of-nature big, strong, fast and has great hands. He’s everything you want in a prototypical wide receiver.” Johnson has been held to just one reception in both of the past two games. With a scheduled $24 million cap hit for next season, Johnson is certainly not guaranteed to be back with Detroit. This could be his final home game. You can bet quarterback Matthew Stafford will want to get the ball in his hands early and often.
5. Hayne back in uniform
Jarryd Hayne spent nearly two months on the 49ers’ practice squad to concentrate on learning the sport of American football. He is back on the active roster, and is likely to see some action on Sunday. He could see some action at running back. Hayne could see some action on punt returns. While he does not figure to have a huge role, the presence of the former rugby league star figures to promise this game will receive more attention in Australia than in the United States.