By: Jamie Samuelsen
Tigers manager Jim Leyland has justifiably been raked over the coals this season for some bizarre lineup decisions and some questionable in-game moves. While Leyland understands the second-guessing, he’s grown a bit testy at times because each of the decisions he makes are ones that he believes will help the Tigers win. Most of them have backfired.
Jim Schwartz channeled his best Jim Leyland heading into last night’s 27-19 loss to the 49ers and much like some of Leyland’s bold moves this season, it didn’t go so well. The Lions decided that to beat the 49ers, they would have to run the ball. The Niners usually dropped two safeties deep into coverage, so Detroit’s normally successful vertical passing game would be blunted. So instead of the big money men (Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson) leading the way, it was a steady diet of Kevin Smith and Joique Bell. The Lions ran 60 offensive plays last night, 26 were runs. The Lions have never been about creating an equitable 50-50 split. Schwartz has made it very clear over the years that he’s not interested in ‘establishing the run’. He’s been far more interested in putting more points on the board that the opponent.
So what happened last night?
In some ways, I give the Lions credit. It takes a bold coach and a bold game plan to say, “We can’t run the ball. And they’re as good as anyone against the run. So let’s run it!” The Lions saw the Packers lose to the 49ers last week while running the ball only 14 times total. So they must have figured that they had to run it more than that. But they ran it too much. San Francisco was #1 in the NFL in rush defense last season allowing 3.5 yards per carry. The Lions were 29th out of 32 teams in running the ball, averaging 4.3 per carry. So why again did Schwartz think this strategy was going to work? I suppose that the element of surprise was on their side because I guarantee you that Jim Harbaugh spent most of last week trying to figure out how to shut down Johnson and the receiving corps than he did worrying about Smith and Bell. But the 49er front seven is so strong that it didn’t really matter how much time they prepared, they were going to stop the Lions from running the ball.
The approach last night reminded me a bit of how Michigan tried to attack Alabama in the season opener September 1st in Dallas. The Wolverines knew how good Bama’s run defense was, so they figured that the only way to win the game was to try to turn Denard Robinson into a passer, which he’s not. And by doing that, Michigan played right in Alabama’s hands and removed their greatest weapon from the game plan.
Fast forward to last night, and we saw almost exactly the same thing. Harbaugh didn’t have to worry nearly as much about stopping Stafford because the Lions basically did it for him. Sure, it would have been very hard to win a game in that stadium against that pass defense, but I sure would like to have seen them try, and try a little bit more aggressively. Part of this is on Stafford who played a poor game and really has played one or two good quarters of football out of the first eight. He needs to get better as I suspect he will against Tennessee. But part of this is on the coaching staff too. The Lions are an offensive team. That’s why they won ten games last year and that’s how they’re going to have success this year going forward.
Sure the 49ers are a good team (dare we say a great team?). But never allow your opponent to dictate the course of the game and in turn take away your strengths. I’d rather have seen the Lions go down playing their game than go down playing a game they’re not accustomed to playing, and not very good at playing either. Because if that continues, the Lions will always struggle to beat the teams ahead of them in the NFL pecking order.