The Lions lost their first game of the season because they were gashed by the 49ers’ Frank Gore on wham plays and trap blocks. Jahvid Best, already struggling to run between the tackles, may be unavailable Sunday due to yet another concussion. Clearly, the Lions need to adjust their defense to account for this vulnerability, and maybe pick up a between-the-tackles back who can replace Best in the lineup, right?
The Lions offense is Matthew Stafford and the bristling arsenal of skill position weapons they’ve supplied him with. The Lions defense is the defensive line—which gets after the quarterback first and asks questions later.
The Lions are built from the ground up to score points through the air, then prevent the other team from doing the same. Teams have been able to run the ball successfully against the Lions; they’ve even been able to dominate time of possession. But until Matthew Stafford and the offense failed to muster at 20 points, no team actually beat the Lions.
Fans and media assessing the Lions in the wake of their first loss are frequently citing an inability to grind out yards, and prevent others from doing the same, as the reason they didn’t win. They want the Lions trade for a power back, or feature Redskins retread Keiland Williams more. They want the Lions’ defensive line to quit pinning their ears back and maintain gap responsibility.
It's not going to happen.
There’s no available running back that will turn the Lions into the 2000 Ravens or the 2009 Jets [Ed.- as I wrote this, the Lions completed a trade for Ronnie Brown. My analysis stands]. The Lions interior line can’t run block like that, and the Lions’ massive array of downfield artillery would go unfired. Why assemble all that firepower and then pull a slingshot out of your back pocket?
The Lions can’t neuter the hyperaggressive defensive line; it’s what allows them to drop seven men back into coverage and take away the pass. As I (presciently) wrote last Friday, the Lions defensive line is allowing running backs to run through them. On purpose. They’re counting on the linebackers to clean up, which until Sunday they were doing brilliantly. Even with those two long runs, the Lions' defense allowed the 27.8 points-per-game 49ers offense to score just 23 points.
Much like the 2009 Saints, the Lions defense is built to stop teams from keeping pace with their offense. As of today, they’re allowing 19.0 points per game; the 7th-stingiest scoring defense in football. But if the offense only ekes out 19 points, as they did on Sunday, there’s not much the defense can do.
I said during the Fireside Chat Detroit Lions podcast something was wrong with Matthew Stafford, the receivers, the coaching, or all three. Stafford was under pressure, yes, but just like in the Cowboys game he had enough time to throw. He didn’t have enough time to stare down Calvin Johnson and wait for him to get 40 yards downfield, but he had enough time to throw. Jim Schwartz gave us a hint of what was happening when talking about the decision to use Maurice Morris instead of Jahvid Best in the fourth quarter:
"He's been effective in the pass game," he explained, "but Mo's also been effective in the pass game. We're working a lot of different combinations and things like that. It really had nothing to do with anything other than that.
"We're sitting there, looking, saying, hey look, we can get Matt some more time - going a lot to Calvin down the field ... trying to push some of those balls down the field. They were playing a little bit different coverage -- rather than 2-Man, they were playing 3-Cloud -- all game decisions."
The Lions were trying to hit the home run. Just like the Chicago game broke open when they hit Megatron with the long ball, the Lions were trying to grab the lead and the momentum. They had Morris in to help pass protect, to give Johnson enough time to get open against a three-deep zone. But they couldn’t pass block long enough, or Megatron couldn’t get open enough, or Stafford couldn’t make a decision quick enough to make it happen. In trying to force the game-changing big play, they passed up a whole lot of little plays that could have helped them win.
In the end, that’s the error I prefer the Lions make. This league is full of almost-good-enough quarterbacks playing almost-good-enough dink-and-dunk ball and mostly hovering within a game or two of .500. That’s not how you win titles in today’s NFL—not without a legendary defense and a Hall of Fame-caliber running back. The Lions don’t have either of those—but what they do have is one hell of a quarterback, one hell of a wide receiver, and an excellent supporting cast.
So the 49ers stopped the unstoppable Stafford-to-Johnson connection, and the Lions by extension. Fine by me! If that’s the only way the Lions lose, they won’t lose more than five games this season. The Lions should not, will not and cannot make wholesale changes to the way they play the game. They have bet their franchise on Matthew Stafford, and they should ride him as far as he’ll carry them.