Imagine yourself in a beautiful garden with oriental decoration. Sitting across from you is an old man. He is bald except for a single long white ponytail. His eyes are closed, but you know that he is blind anyway. He says to you, "Patience grasshopper. We cannot force fate to fit our whims. Close your eyes and empty your thoughts. Take a deep cleansing breath."
You do as the old man advises. Thoughts of sunshine and rainbows enter your mind's eye. Then you see it. The large building in the distance is Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Your vision zooms in to the field just as you see Vernon Davis waltz into the end zone for a score. Behind him is a trail of Detroit Lions laying on the ground after futile attempts to tackle Davis. Immediately, your blood begins to boil and you scream, "No, not again!" That is when your wife shakes you and says, "Honey, are you having that Detroit Lions nightmare again?"
Alright, maybe I am having a bit too much fun with this. I believe that many Lions fans have a less fantastic form of this experience on a regular basis. For decades it was about our favorite team wallowing in mediocrity and incompetence. This vision has been replaced by an even more frustrating version. Now that we feel the Lions are on the verge of greatness, we are impatient to see it all come to fruition. Our long period of suffering has used up our patience. Nevertheless, we have to keep some sense of balance in the face of our frustration or anger will lead us to say intemperate things.
The Lions' loss to the 49ers was summed up nicely by Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
We didn't do enough to win the game, both offense, defense and special teams. There were plays to be made in all three phases that we didn't accomplish.
Yes, we noticed that. The problem is that we have noticed that for many years now. That has always been the modus operandi that has kept the Lions from becoming a truly great team. Sloppy play and lack of discipline has always been the downfall of the men in silver and blue.
The sloppy play started on Sunday with Matthew Stafford. We have to give the 49ers credit for having a very tough and disruptive defense, but the defense does not throw the football. Stafford was throwing the ball like he was back in high school. It was rare to see a throw that was in a proper location for the receiver and had the proper amount of speed. He unleashed one wounded duck that was intercepted. That was easily the worst throw I have ever seen from Stafford in a Lions uniform. The Lions offense lives and dies on the arm of Stafford. Against the 49ers it was lifeless too often.
In order to keep proper perspective, we have to remember that Stafford is still a young quarterback that is developing. So far, we have seen a tendency toward slow starts in games and in the season as a whole from Stafford. After the masterful performances by Stafford at the end of last season, most Lions fans were hoping he would start this year as he ended the last one. I think we can safely bury that idea. The Lions need Stafford to snap out of his funk before they have any hope of being able to dictate play to the opposing defense.
Stafford is not the only reason that the offense is sputtering, though he is the primary reason. There are plenty of missed plays by other people on the offense: dropped passes, poor route running, poor run blocking and poor vision by the running backs have all contributed to the inconsistency of the Lions offense. There is enough blame to go around.
Kevin Smith was mostly ineffective and that resulted in him being replaced for parts of the game by Joique Bell. Bell had a bit of success because he is more able to break tackles and grind out tough yards. One of the best plays in the game for the Lions offense was a short pass to Bell that he converted into a long gain. Overall, the Lions running game was not effective enough to force the 49ers defense out of their scheme to primarily defend the pass.
The receivers were quiet for the Lions. The Lions offense was never in control of the passing game. It was a simple matter of the 49ers being able to win the individual battles. Nate Burleson was invisible. Titus Young was undisciplined and ineffective. Calvin Johnson had to fight triple teams on many plays and Stafford was not throwing well enough to beat them consistently.
So far this season the Lions have scored 46 total points. That is about one touchdown per game below the pace that they set last season. In a league where games are usually won or lost by a single touchdown, that is a very significant drop. The Lions offense needs to come together quickly before they lose any games that they should win. Thankfully, they have upcoming games against the Titans and Vikings. Those are two defenses that the Lions should be able to move the ball against.
The defense was inconsistent. They would make plays to put the 49ers into third down and long situations, and then they would let them off the hook by defending the inevitable pass like amateurs. It is clear that the passing defense has some real issues, and they are not all with the secondary.
The single most damaging weapon in this game for the 49ers offense was Vernon Davis. The Lions did not cover him adequately with linebackers or safeties. This is a continuation of the problems that the pass defense suffered toward the end of last season. Lions fans love to scream about the cornerbacks, but exactly how many long pass plays have we seen down the sidelines in the first two weeks? Not that many, really.
The Lions have been suffering the death of many cuts by allowing the opposition to complete underneath passes to a variety of wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. They are often in zones that are the responsibilities of the linebackers to cover. Yes, the cornerbacks and safeties share in responsibility for the short passes too.
Having some defensive backs that could jam a receiver instead of playing seven yards off the line would help a lot. The Lions coaches really need to adapt and institute some press coverage into the defense or the Lions will be chopped to bitty bits by the underneath pass all season. It is difficult to get off the field on third down when you consistently give up eight-yard pass plays.
The defensive tackles had a good game. That was really more a case that Ndamukong Suh was great and the rest of the defensive tackles were acceptable. The defensive ends looked like they were playing in quicksand. Cliff Avril had his typically horrible game against the run, and his inability to provide contain on the backside was directly responsible for a 30-yard gain on an end-around to Mario Manningham.
If you were to take away the long gain by Manningham then the run defense was good enough. Frank Gore was limited to 89 yards and one touchdown. Those are numbers that the Lions should be able to allow and still win, especially when you consider how run oriented the 49ers offense can be. With the exception of the Manningham run, the Lions defense made their biggest mistakes on passing plays.
With the game on the line, the Lions defense put the 49ers into three different third down and long situations and failed to stop the first down on any of them. All three first down conversions by the 49ers were short passes to Michael Crabtree. The defense was unable to stop the short pass when they needed it.
If the Lions would have stopped the 49ers on third down and seven yards to go with 7:51 left on the clock, this could have been a very different game. That one play would have removed seven points from the scoreboard for the 49ers and may have given the Lions an additional possession at the end of the game. The Lions could have been in a position to win with a field goal if just that one defensive play was made. That is how close this game was.
Jim Schwartz had it right in his statement that the Lions did not make enough plays. That is sort of like saying that water is wet. It is obviously the case in any game that you lose. The thing to look at is how many plays the Lions left on the field and whether that was enough to change the outcome. The answer is, the Lions left many plays on the field and it was easily enough to change the outcome.
I have watched a lot of football in my lifetime. The teams that have always impressed me are the ones that can go out and execute their game plan in the face of the competition. It takes talent and discipline from the players to accomplish that. The Lions are not there yet. They still lack developed talent at key positions. Discipline is a coaching issue as much as being on the players. I am still waiting to see the team that I want from the Lions. I want to see a team that can impose its will on the opposition and be in control of the game. I want to see the Lions be more like the San Francisco 49ers.