Lions squander chances to beat 49ers with weak ground game

On Sunday night, the Detroit Lions showed us how much progress has been made, and how far is left to go. The Lions are good enough to hang with any team, but not enough to beat them. The Lions are good enough for consistent field goals, but can’t crack through to the end zone when it matters. Or more realistically, the Lions are simply a scoring drive short. Detroit fell by a score of 27-19 to the San Francisco 49ers, on a frustrating night for Lions fans, despite the signs of where this team can be.

San Francisco scored a touchdown on their first drive, and their lead held up all game long, despite a last-ditch effort by Detroit. The ultimate margin of victory was a touchdown (plus a two-point conversion), or simply the eight point margin from two touchdowns over two field goals. There’s many different turning points in this game, but all of them have a theme – the Lions being unable to score a touchdown, and settling for a field goal. Every Detroit drive in the second half ended in a score, and the Lions were always able to move the ball down the field.

What killed the Lions was a strategy that went away from what this team is built for, as coach Jim Schwartz insisted on the run early and often despite building a team centered around the pass. The Lions have Calvin Johnson, and a stacked group of wide receivers and tight ends, and they have to rely on that to win. Over and over again, the Lions ran for 1 or 2 yards with their first play, continually holding the team back.
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Even the 49ers were amazed, as San Francisco DE Justin Smith summed up the game on NBC’s postgame coverage with, “They kept sticking with the run, we kept holding them, and we held on for the win.” The Lions should not be sticking with the run, and even the opposing team understood that.

Jim Schwartz was defensive about this strategy after the game, even mentioning in his postgame press conference that “we had a lot of 1 to 2 yard runs, but those were good plays.” Unfortunately, those were not good plays. Running on first down for two yards only leads to more pressure on later plays, forcing the Lions into situations where they have to pass anyway. The Lions have six great receivers, and are weak within the running game.

The Lions have a #1 overall pick at quarterback, the greatest wide receiver in the world in Calvin Johnson, a solid slot#2 receiver in Nate Burleson, and three more receivers taken high in the draft (Brandon Pettigrew, Titus Young, and Ryan Broyles). If those guys are on the field, someone is open, and that someone will gain more than three yards. Sure, some discussion after the game was on Matthew Stafford’s inconsistent performance, but again, it all comes back to those bad running plays. When Stafford is given the ball, with this receiving corps, the Lions score. Instead, when the Lions try to force the run, Stafford can’t get into a groove as the emphasis is put on the offense’s weakest unit. Matthew Stafford didn’t have his strongest game tonight, but it was not entirely his fault.

And, if you favor the pass, the running game has time to open up. If the defense has to play back for the pass, that leads to more holes for a running back to bust through, gaining worthwhile yardage. When the offense is structured to have so many options, the defense has to leave someone open, and a running back can be the safest option with a drawn-back defense.

On the other hand, when the defense knows that the run is coming, especially from a team built like the Lions, they will easily hold. The Lions’ only power running back is Mikel Leshoure, suspended until next week. Sunday night, the Lions played a bruising running attack based on a bigger RB, with more finesse guys like Kevin Smith and Joique Bell. It did not work, and that weakness cost Detroit the game.

For San Francisco, the 49ers were able to break through for touchdowns, despite having similar numbers, and did so with the kind of successful running game that Detroit could not imitate. San Francisco had 349 total yards of offense to the Lions’ 296, nearly identical passing numbers (Alex Smith was 20-for-31, for 201 yards; Matthew Stafford was 19-for-32 for 214 yards), and the same number of scores each (five scores for both teams). This game was nowhere near a blowout, not like the Lions’ last Sunday night game against New Orleans.

What made the difference was the 49ers’ rushing game, under star RB Frank Gore. Gore rushed for only 89 yards, but San Francisco had 8 first-downs via rushing, to the Detroit’s 3. The 49ers also averaged 5.5 yards per rush, to the Lions’ 3.2. Those extra yards on each play made the difference in moving the chains, as the 49ers had 24 first-downs to the Lions’ 15. San Francisco moved the football to score, and the Lions ran into a tough defense once they got within a sniff of the San Francisco 20-yard-line.

More analysis will come this week, including how the Lions could move the ball with the pass and how the running game was continually stopped. But at the end of the day, the Lions are built for an aerial attack, and they simply refused to use those assets.

Gordie Fall

Gordon Fall has been around the Detroit sports scene for his entire life and even entered the world with a Red Wings hockey stick in hand. With a variety of connections around the Detroit area, Fall will be presenting the unspoken, yet optimistic truth of our city’s sports scene.

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