Better late than never, right?
The Detroit Lions looked like Mercer University facing off against Alabama for most of this game, getting torched on defense and stymied on offense. Something clicked late in the fourth quarter, however, and the Lions nearly rallied to tie. Finishing with a score of 41-33 is extremely impressive given the hole the Lions had to crawl out of. Still, it is a loss in the standings, though there are some positive takeaways to be had.
This team has heart
The end result doesn’t show it, but the Lions showed strength today. I had to rewrite this article because I had ruled out the Lions by the third quarter. The comeback fell short, but to even get into that position is outstanding. Sure, the 49ers clearly left the door open, but props to the young team for the effort at the end.
A bad coaching staff would have mailed it in, even unintentionally. Dan Cambell’s team kept fighting for a game that looked out of reach. At first, secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant yelling at Jeff Okudah looks bad, but it shows how much these coaches care about their players. When Okudah got beat on a long touchdown, Pleasant met him on the sideline with a hug.
Jared Goff is going to lean on T.J. Hockenson
Outside of some late heroics where he looked possessed by Tom Brady, Jared Goff was dinking-and-dunking for most of the game. Goff finished with a whopping 53 passing attempts for 338 yards, but the yardage can be misleading. A 43-yard touchdown screen to D’Andre Swift inflates his numbers, while 94 of Goff’s yards came on the final two drives of the game.
Goff’s safety net throughout the game was T.J. Hockenson. Goff hardly targeted his wide receivers, leaving Hockenson as the lone downfield choice. He finished with eight catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. Goff never looked comfortable passing to anyone else, aside from the check-downs to running backs. Many expected the Pro Bowl tight end to be the primary pass-catcher for the Lions this season, and the early signs point towards that.
Dan Campbell is being aggressive
The Lions finished the game 2-for-5 on fourth down opportunities, but Campbell deserves credit for the aggressiveness. The Lions’ first drive ended with a turnover on downs, but the fault came down to execution, as Jamaal Williams slipped and the right side collapsed. Later in the first quarter, the Lions again faced fourth-and-short, this time converting the opportunity. This led to a much-needed touchdown. The Lions converted another fourth-down try in the third quarter that also lead to a touchdown.
The final two failed attempts occurred in the fourth quarter with the Lions behind, so they were obvious choices to make. I am most impressed with the first three decisions because they so perfectly reflect the difference between Dan Campbell and Matt Patricia. Patricia would have kicked the ball on at least two of those attempts. Instead, going for it ended up giving the Lions two touchdowns, and it almost made the difference.
The Lions can run the ball?
You almost have to feel a bit bad for Matthew Stafford. After years of failing to pair him with a competent run game, the Lions seem to have finally achieved it in 2021, only for Stafford to be playing for the Rams. He’ll get a shot at the playoffs though, so things could be worse for him.
Focusing back on Detroit, Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but given the score for most of the game, they were extremely efficient. A majority of the credit has to go to the offensive line. They were absolutely plowing their way downfield, opening holes that the broadcasters joked they could fit through—although I’m not confident in Mark Sanchez running behind linemen. With Goff looking mediocre for most of the game, you have to imagine they will lean on the run game a lot this year—if they can get ahead.
The defense is still a major problem
I, among many, was hoping that Matt Patricia was the prime cause of the defense’s woes. Unfortunately, the Lions’ struggles against the 49ers were almost all on the players. The 49ers were ripping off massive plays all game long, and no facet had success.
The defensive line was victimized by Elijah Mitchell as the rookie finished with over 100 yards rushing. The linebackers and secondary deserve some blame too, often failing to hold the 49ers to modest gains. The pass rush was lackluster as well, with the lone sack coming from Tracy Walker on a blitz. The Lions officially forced three fumbles, but two of those were botches: one was a dropped snap on the 49ers' first play and the other was a muffed onside kick recovery. The legitimate forced fumble was key to keeping the comeback alive, however.
The secondary will get grilled in headlines and justly so. The 79-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel summed it up perfectly: cornerbacks failing to make plays and Will Harris getting turned around. Jeff Okudah had some good moments, but they will be overshadowed by the chunk plays and his injury. There aren’t many positives in the secondary aside from youth. Walker had the aforementioned sack, but Jimmy Garoppolo had free rein for most of the game.
Buckle in for a long season
The Lions had some late fireworks to make things interesting, but football is a four-quarter game and they were invisible for the first three. I’m more inclined to believe the Lions are the team we saw early on, and that’s disappointing. Disappointing, but not unexpected.
Many of us have tempered our expectations for the Lions as they rebuild. Few of us, aside from those in danger of overdosing on Kool-Aid, truly expect the Lions to be a good team this year. There will be many games where the team looks hopelessly outclassed, and that’s fine. If you want sure-fire entertaining football, there are plenty of other teams to watch. That being said, the Lions can still provide some excitement if you stick around.