SAN FRANCISCO – As we walked through the parking lot to Candlestick Park, the wind was so severe you had to lower your head. I wondered how the Lions were going to pass in a swirl like this.
As it turns out, they didn’t plan to. On a Sunday night in San Francisco that seemed more like a Saturday afternoon in the Big Ten, the Lions and 49ers returned to that antiquated NFL play – the handoff – making for a quick game, but an inevitable Detroit defeat. The Lions simply don’t do what the 49ers do as well as the 49ers do. By handing off over and over, the Lions were attacking the teeth of the 49ers’ defense. The 49ers were hitting back in the gums.
De-feet. In a game overhyped by a coaches handshake, it was legs that told the story. The Lions tried to run to victory. They handed off on so many first downs, Bo Schembechler might have bought a ticket. This is a team that eats you up with the pass. A team that threw 48 times in last week’s win. A team that was one of the worst in the NFL at rushing last season and is missing its two top rushing prospects.
But on Sunday night, it was tuck and go. Even Matthew Stafford took off on a quarterback draw. He gained 11 yards. Unfortunately, that was the Lions’ longest rush of the night.
“They (the 49ers) are a team that won’t let you hit it with the big pass,” Stafford said after the 27-19 loss, explaining the rush-rush philosophy. “They do that to everybody. You gotta pick and choose when you’re going to go for the pass on them.”
Slim pickings, apparently.
The good vs. the improving
This was a calculated gamble by coach Jim Schwartz and his staff. It didn’t work. Ground control is going to favor a team with a bona fide running back and a tenacious defense. The 49ers are that team; the Lions are not.
“We were starting to soften them up,” said tackle Jeff Backus, who concurred that the run emphasis was a weeklong plan. “We just didn’t do enough in the end.”
Neither did the defense. Playing with a secondary comprised mostly of backups, Detroit was more vulnerable to the passing game than usual. But the 49ers did what the Lions were dreaming of doing: major damage with the running plays. Frank Gore had 89 rushing yards and a touchdown. All told, San Fran gained 66 more yards than Detroit on one more rushing attempt (27 to 26).
It didn’t help that the Lions made costly mistakes. A running-into-the-kicker penalty changed a 49ers field goal into an eventual touchdown, a four-point swing. And a clunked goal post by kicker Jason Hanson kept three more points off the board in the second quarter.
Then, down the stretch, when the defense needed to make big stops, it instead gave up several long third-down conversions. Alex Smith’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis – off a play fake to Gore – sealed the deal.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ offense was like a cold car with an old ignition. It coughed and sputtered, with Stafford uncharacteristically off-target on simple passes. Kevin Smith (16 carries, 53 yards) is good, but he is not Gore, and Joique Bell went from one carry last week to facing the best rushing defense in the NFL last year.
Here’s what the Lions (who just four times last year had more rushing attempts than the 26 they tried Sunday) were thinking with that game plan: “They expect us to pass. Let’s soften them with the run. Then when we do pass, we’ll draw favorable coverage and sting them hard.”
It works on paper.
But they play on grass.
Before this one began, all anyone could talk about was a handshake between two guys named Jim. Last year’s temperamental moment between Harbaugh and Schwartz, totally meaningless to the game, has gained mythical status. Al Michaels began the NBC broadcast with a reference to generals Grant and Lee and their handshake at Appomattox.
Geez. You’d think no coach had ever lost it before.
Once the ball was kicked, thankfully, the focus shifted to the teams, not the tempers. But it was apparent, from the start, that the 49ers were more in sync than Detroit.
“This felt as if it were a playoff game,” Schwartz said, “…but it wasn’t a playoff game….This wasn’t our best game in any of our phases.”
Now, while that is true, this loss, for the Lions, was not an awful defeat. Last week against the Rams would have been an awful defeat. Sunday was always going to be a tough one, national TV, in Candlestick, against arguably the best team in the NFL. They played it relatively close. An eight point game. That may be meaningless to Detroit players or fans this morning, but it does show improvement. The old Lions might have lost by 40.
The winds blow. Things change. Maybe when the Lions are at full strength at running back, they can win a game with this approach. Or maybe against a slightly lesser team. De-feet was the headline for Sunday. But look at it this way. At least we’re talking about football this morning, not a handshake.