I know I’m late to the party with this post. Everyone has already weighed in on this game. As of Thursday morning, I still haven’t gone back to watch the game film again. So what makes this loss so tough to swallow? I knew the Lions were probably going to lose this game (although I still think the 49ers offense is overrated). I knew it wasn’t going to be the offensive shootout the Lions have become so accustomed to being a part of. Well, part of it has to be the fact that it was nationally televised (and the Lions looked terrible). Part of it has to do with me not wanting to scream at the TV in front of company. But mostly, it has to do with the fact that the Lions lost by forcing their biggest weakness (one of the weakest in the league) head on into the biggest strength (one of the strongest in the league) of their opposition.
Now, this is not a rabble rabble, fire linehan type of post. I’d be the first to admit that there are a variety of ways the Lions could have lost this game, and probably would have. That’s something we’ll never know. The 49ers are among the best teams in football and there are a lot of reasons why they won the game. What I want to talk about is the particular path that the Lions chose to lose this game, if that makes any sense.
It was obvious from anyone that knows the 49ers what type of team they are. They use their incredible front 7 to absolutely shut down the run and then they can keep 2 deep safeties back to defend the pass. This caused what (in my opinion) was the dumbest possible gameplan from the Lions. Last year, the 49ers allowed 3 rushing touchdowns. The previous single-season record was 6 by the 1932 Bears and the 1933 Brooklyn Dodgers (the football team). The 49ers didn’t even allow one until week 16. Last year, they tied with the Ravens for the league lead with 3.5 yard per carry allowed. They allowed the fewest rushing first downs with 53. The second best team in football allowed 73. So their run defense is incredibly good. Historically good. So what did the Lions choose to do? Run the ball.
Let’s look at the stats to break down what happened on Sunday night. The Lions had the ball on 1st down 13 times in the first half (not counting the run and kneel down to end the half). Of those 13 plays, 9 were runs for an average of 2.89 yards per carry. So that basically got them to 2nd and 7. They had the ball on 2nd down 10 times in the first half and ran it 6 times for 3.17 yards per carry. Their average distance on 3rd down was 3rd and 6, which is still not considered “short yardage” despite their insistence on running on 1st and 2nd down. So out of 8 3rd down attempts in the first half, they ran the ball 0 times, resulting in just 2 third down conversions. In the first half, the Lions had 6 drives, averaging 2:42 per drive, 5.17 plays per drive, 23.3 yards per drive, and just 1 point per drive. That is what I consider a completely anemic offense.
I can see the thought process. The 49ers were showing a pass defense. They only had 6 or 7 in the box on any given play. Going by the book, following the adage of “take what the defense gives you,” you should be running in those situations. But here’s the problem. Clearly the Lions thought they were taking what the defense was giving them. The problem with that is that the defense actually wasn’t conceding the run just because it had a “light box”. You see 6 or 7 in the box and you think you should run. However, against the 49ers, those 6 or 7 defenders crowding the box are likely to include two of the best linebackers in football (Willis and Bowman) and two of the best defensive ends in the league (Justin Smith and Aldon Smith). You shouldn’t be surprised for them to defeat 1-on-1 blocks; you should expect it.
The 2nd half is a different story entirely. Or rather more of the same. Not counting the Lions final drive, they ran 6 of 7 times on 1st down, 2 of 6 times on 2nd down and 1 of 4 times on 3rd down. But this time, it started to just kind of work a little bit. They ran for 4 ypc on 1st down, 4.5 ypc on 2nd, and 4 ypc on 3rd. Again not counting the final drive, on 3 of the 4 third downs the Lions faced in the 2nd half, the down and distance was 3rd and 5 or closer. And it showed in the drives. The Lions averaged 8.5 plays per drive, 5:44 per drive, 44.5 yards per drive, and 3 points per drive. Those are considerably better numbers than the 1st half. But wait, that’s just 2 drives. Yes, from halftime on, the Lions had just 3 drives. That includes just 1 drive in the 3rd quarter. Rather than kick-starting the offense in the 2nd half, the Lions finally found their 4 minute offense and completely chewed the clock. And over those two drives, the Lions point deficit went from -8 to -15. They were bringing a knife to a gun fight and leaving their gun in the car.
Only when down by 15 did the Lions offense actually decide to play, as is the case in most of the Lions’ games. Their final drive took 1:35, went 80 yards, and provided their only touchdown of the game. Did that final drive actually surprise anyone? Probably not. This is what the Lions always do. When they stop messing around and start chucking the ball down the field, they simply can’t be stopped. Do you know the biggest difference between their first 8 drives (at 1.5 point per drive) and their final one (at 7 points per drive)? On the last one, the Lions didn’t run. 10 plays, 10 passes, 80 yards, 7 points. The concept is simple. The only time that the Lions were able to effectively sustain a drive was the worst possible time to do so. And for all of that running through the first 3.5 quarters of the game, the Lions did not even reach the 49ers red zone until 1:45 left in the 4th quarter.
Now I’m not saying that passing 100% of the time is sustainable or advisable or anything like that, but there is a definite reason why the Lions have such a huge 4th quarter advantage over just about any team they face. That reason is that their passing attack is just that potent. Matthew Stafford isn’t going to be uber-efficient. You give him 1 chance on 3rd and short and maybe he makes it, maybe he doesn’t. That’s my point. If your 3rd and shorts still aren’t short enough for the possibility of running the ball, then what good are they? Is there that much of a difference between a 3rd and 6 and a 3rd and 10 when you need to complete 1 pass for a first down? Not really. And I’d rather use those first two plays to attempt some passes instead of trying to force a run with an upside of 10 yards and a downside of -2. A possible 20 yard pass is worth the risk that it will be incomplete and you won’t have gained any yards on the play. The passing attack is so far ahead of the running game that defenses don’t even worry about the run against the Lions. Here’s what Donte Whitner had to say after the game:
They seemed a little more committed to the run for a team that passes so much. What effect did that have on the game for you guys?
“It didn’t really have any effect at all. We were still able to keep two safeties deep at all times. We didn’t have to get too nosey in the run game. Our front seven, front six did a good job of stopping the run with a light box. That’s what we have to do versus teams like Green Bay and Detroit, guys who like to throw the ball a lot. We have to be able to stop the run and keep two guys deep to take away their main threats and that’s what we did.”
You might argue that the Lions had to be able to run against those fronts. And Linehan would agree with you. In theory, a balance offense against a balanced defense that is pouring more resources into stopping the pass than the run should work out to an effective running game. But we all know that neither the offense or the defense were balanced on Sunday. The 49ers dared the Lions to run the ball against those light boxes. The Lions took the dare and regretted it. Personally, I would have rather seen the Lions turn it into a game of 7-on-7. At least I know the Lions have an advantage there.