Detroit — This isn’t how the Lions are built to succeed. And frankly, it’s not how Jared Goff’s going to prove he’s the right man for this job, either.
But it’s probably not the last time we’ll be seeing this, or saying that. So maybe it’s best to get this out of the way early, especially if it’s going to happen fairly often.
The Lions’ season opener was everything they hoped it wouldn’t be Sunday. And even though it ended with a spirited rally, it was the ugly start that got everyone’s attention. And left us with one glaring reminder in the final boxscore.
Fifty-seven pass attempts?
“That’s not our game, man,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said after Sunday’s 41-33 loss at Ford Field. “You throw the ball 57 times … we’re not gonna win a lot of those games.”
They’re probably not gonna win a lot of games, period. But this was the game they made for themselves Sunday, as Goff and the offense squandered an early gift — a fumbled snap by the 49ers on the first play from scrimmage — and the Lions’ defense picked up where it left off last season, getting picked apart like a carcass on the Serengeti.
Detroit didn’t force a punt until the final minute of the third quarter Sunday, and by halftime the Lions had dug themselves a three-touchdown “ditch,” as Campbell described it.
Problem is, Goff is not exactly a four-wheeler, or even an F-150. He might be tough, but he’s not built for this kind of terrain, which is part of the reason why Sean McVay and the Rams shipped him off to Detroit this winter in a trade for Matthew Stafford, who always seemed most comfortable when it came to off-schedule throws and second-half comebacks.
This roster certainly isn’t designed with that sort of thing in mind. Not at this stage, anyway. No, the idea here is to try to with an effective run game and a ball-control offense that doesn’t ask Goff to improvise, only execute. Staying ahead of the chains and staying out of trouble.
But that’s not nearly as easy as it might sound in the NFL, and Sunday we saw why against an opponent with far more playmaking talent across the board. The Lions might have a reasonable facsimile of George Kittle in his apprentice pal, T.J. Hockenson, but they don’t have a Deebo Samuel. Or a Fred Warner or a Nick Bosa, for that matter.
So when they fell behind, they were “forced into a world that you’re not in,” to use Campbell’s phrasing. And then when Goff made the kind of mistake he can’t afford to make — the kind he made far too often for McVay’s liking the last couple years in L.A. — he and his teammates were in a world of hurt.
That pick-six Goff threw under duress — with 49ers end Dee Ford pile-driving backup right tackle Matt Nelson into his face — was the kind of mistake we saw Stafford make plenty of times over the last dozen years, sure. But it’s one Goff simply can’t afford to make now, and he knows it.
“I can’t throw a pick in two-minute drill — specifically a pick-six,” said Goff, who’d turned down a deep shot on the play right before that interception, “and give them that momentum, give them all that, right before the half.”
He can’t, but he did, floating a pass into what amounted to triple coverage over the middle on third-and-8 from his own 32. Hockenson, to no one’s surprise, was the intended target, but the 49ers were laying in wait in zone coverage.
“He just kind of hung on Hockenson too long,” Campbell said, “and it bit us in the ass.”
It left a mark, for sure. Because Dre Greenlaw’s 39-yard return for a score made it 28-10. After another quick three-and-out on the Lions’ ensuing possession — tackle for loss, sack, short completion — the 49ers got the ball back and added a field goal just before halftime.
At which point, the stat sheet spoke volumes, as did the chorus of boos from the Ford Field patrons. Goff was 15-of-20 passing in the first half, but those throws accounted for just 92 yards — a paltry 4.6 yards per attempt. He’d completed just two passes to a wide receiver — both to Tyrell Williams, who’d finish the game on the sideline with an undisclosed injury.
Through three quarters, that total hadn’t changed much, with Goff adding a lone 3-yard completion to rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, whom he’d airmailed on a first-quarter throw that should’ve been a touchdown. There were opportunities missed with errant throws, but also others declined, as Goff seemed hesitant or reluctant, opting instead for the sort of checkdowns that won’t get you far in today’s NFL.
And despite that frantic fourth-quarter finish that saw the Lions sandwich a pair of late touchdown drives around a recovered onside kick, Campbell was quick to acknowledge the obvious. As much as he likes his offensive line — “I think they can move people,” he said Sunday — and the promise Detroit’s run game showed with 118 yards on just 24 carries against the 49ers’ defense, there has to be something more.
“We’ve got to find a way to create some explosive plays in the pass game,” Campbell said. “It doesn’t mean you’re throwing it downfield every play. But we’ve got to find a way to get better at pushing the ball down the field. Because we can’t live that way.”
Not against a team like San Francisco. Or next Monday night against an angry Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. Or even the week after when Baltimore comes to town.
No, the Lions are not going to survive living dangerously the way they did for most of Stafford’s career here. And to be fair, not many quarterbacks would.
Sunday’s 57 attempts were the third-most of Goff’s pro career. In 165 starts in Detroit, Stafford threw that many passes only three times himself. And as long as we’re revisiting the past, it’s worth noting that of the 13 times Stafford attempted 50 or more passes, the Lions went 1-12. All but two of those games came with a Hall of Famer named Calvin Johnson running routes.
Megatron will be in the stadium in a couple weeks for the Ravens game as the Lions honor him with a Hall of Fame ring ceremony. But he won’t be in uniform. Instead, the deep threats on this roster are limited to Williams, if he’s healthy, and newly-acquired Trinity Benson, who did flash a bit of potential against the 49ers.
So Goff, as expected, is going to have to find a way to do more with less. And if that’s asking too much, so be it. If we learned anything Sunday, it’s that he and the Lions don’t really have a choice.