Why coaching gives the Detroit Lions a huge advantage over the San Francisco 49ers

The Detroit Lions head to San Francisco to shoot… power against the 49ers. Being the biggest underdogs, the Lions will have to leverage every bit of leverage they have over the top seed in the NFC. The 49ers have a complete roster and have been considered favorites to make the Super Bowl for almost the entire season.

On paper, the Lions only have small advantages here and there. Their rushing attack has a chance to succeed against a 49ers front that is much better at rushing the passer than defending the run. Aidan Hutchinson is also a major mismatch with 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz.

But Detroit's biggest advantage may be in coaching.

On the surface, Dan Campbell vs. Kyle Shanahan has the look of a David vs. Goliath match. Shanahan is one of the smartest offensive minds in football, capable of creating schemes and mismatches that will make defensive coordinators' heads spin. Meanwhile, those who don't know Campbell view him as an old-school character who drives more with emotion than intelligence.

However, when it comes to game day officiating, it's Shanahan who's stuck in the stone age while Campbell is the modern genius.

Analytics website Somer Sports has developed a statistic called Probability of Winning Plus ExpectednessWhich measures the value of decisions made by coaches within the game. It takes into account things like timeout use, fourth-down and two-point conversion decisions, and avoiding delaying games.

Of the four coaches remaining in the playoffs, Campbell leads the field with the winning percentage he has added for the Lions this year. Shanahan, on the other hand, is the worst of the bunch, and it's not particularly close.

Photo courtesy of Summer Sports

Campbell added a winning percentage of 93.1% more than expected, while Shanahan is the only remaining coach with a negative value.

Not surprisingly, Campbell's biggest asset in game-day decisions is his aggressiveness on fourth down. Just Carolina Panthers Attempt more fourth-down conversions (48) than the Lions (40) in 2023, and Detroit's conversion rate of 52.5% is slightly above average. On the other hand, the 49ers attempted just 13 fourth downs — the fewest in the NFL.

The playoffs have been a perfect example of why Campbell's aggressiveness has helped Detroit get to this moment. Against both the Rams and Piratesthe Lions scored fourth-and-goal and turned a three-point chance into seven points.

In the postseason, those seemingly small decisions can turn out to be the difference between advancing and making golf reservations. So don't ignore the huge advantage Detroit has there.

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