By Sam McPherson
It’s been a season of “What if?” for the Detroit Lions as they prepare to host the San Francisco 49ers this weekend at Ford Field in Motown. The 5-9 Lions have lost six games by 10 points or less, coming short in the end way too many times. Most famously, Detroit was on the wrong end of an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary throw in Week 13 that cost the team a sweep of the Green Bay Packers.
The Lions have shifted offensive gears lately, though, with a coaching staff change worthy of Internet memes (see below). After a 1-7 start, Detroit has come out of its bye week with a 4-2 stretch and is looking to set itself up for another playoff run in 2016. This game against San Francisco is also the Lions’ home finale for this season, and the fans will be loud and proud.
The Lions won just one game in the first half of the season, a 37-34 overtime thriller against the Chicago Bears at home in Week 6. Coming out of the bye week with a 1-7 record, Detroit immediately went to Green Bay and won there for the first time since December 1991. Since then, the Lions also have wins over Oakland, Philadelphia and New Orleans. With two probable playoff teams ahead of them in the NFC North Division, the Lions are tied with the Bears at the bottom of the division standings.
Lions on Offense
Right before the bye week, the Detroit coaching staff made some changes, including the replacement of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi with Jim Bob Cooter. Since then, the Lions have been much more effective and efficient in moving the ball up and down the field behind quarterback Matthew Stafford (career-best 66.1 percent completion percentage, 27 touchdowns). The biggest change has been in turnovers, where Detroit committed 18 turnovers before the coaching switch and just six turnovers since then.
The Lions offense is over-reliant still, however, on Stafford’s arm. The team’s rushing leader has just 514 yards, and the next-best runner has gained a mere 289 yards. Overall, Detroit averages 3.9 yards per carry. The receivers are fronted by wide receiver Calvin Johnson (1,000 yards and seven TDs). WR Golden Tate has 82 receptions to lead the team, while running back Theo Riddick has 69 catches out of the backfield. Stafford is at his best when he involves tight end Eric Ebron (38 receptions) in the passing game effectively.
Lions on Defense
Detroit’s defense is No. 28 in the league, giving up almost 26 points per game. It peaked in the back-to-back wins over the Raiders and the Eagles, allowing a combined 443 yards in those two games. However, 10 times this season, the Lions have given up at least 340 yards to the opponent. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch leads the team with 98 tackles, while defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has sacked opposing QBs 13.5 times this year to pace Detroit in that defensive category.
The secondary is the Lions’ defensive weakness, as safety Glover Quin has half (three) the team’s total interceptions (six). Three of the team’s top five tacklers are in the secondary, which means there’s a lot of action happening back there. Detroit has given up a lot of passing yards this season to QBs named Rivers, Manning, Cutler, Bridgewater, Rodgers and Brees.
Lions Players to Watch
Offensively, Stafford holds the key: He can be downright ugly, as the Minnesota and Kansas City defenses showed in back-to-back weeks earlier in the season, holding him to under 200 yards passing in each contest. Then again, Stafford can be deadly: He completed 22 of 25 passes against New Orleans on Monday Night Football last week. With Cooter calling the plays, the Lions have been a much better offense, and that flows through Stafford. He is Detroit’s best player now that Johnson is aging and slowing down somewhat as a dominant WR.
Two factors point to a Lions victory over the 49ers this Sunday. First, Detroit is on a roll right now, and if its defense had just been smarter against Rodgers on that Hail Mary pass, the Lions would be riding even more momentum. Second, San Francisco is just 1-6 on the road, and its last time out in the Midwest, the team lost to the Cleveland Browns. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the 49ers’ chances against the Detroit at Ford Field. Look for another one of those games where the opponent jumps out to a big halftime lead on San Francisco and then cruises to victory in the second half.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.