By: L.C. Gagin
The Detroit Lions opened their 2012 campaign with a nerve-wracking 27-23 victory over the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field this past Sunday. A capacity crowd, including myself, was ready to begin the season in style, with a win over the lowly Rams. However, something happened that few expected. Matthew Stafford threw not one, not two, but three interceptions in the first half, sending fans into immediate panic mode. All three picks were a combination of a poor decision on Matthew’s part and some sort of great play by a defender. But when you invest in a franchise quarterback like the Lions have with Stafford, you believe that he can bounce back and guide your team to a victory.
And that is exactly what he did in the second half, with two tremendous drives to tie the game and then take the lead. The first of those drives was the Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew show, as the big tight end hauled in three straight passes to get the Lions into field goal range to tie the game. But in a drive that can define a player, team, and season, Matthew proved why he is one of the top 5-6 quarterbacks in this league. With less than two minutes and two timeouts left, Stafford looked poised and under control, and proceeded to take his team right down the field. A completed short pass to a wide open Kevin Smith resulted in the game-winning score.
Now, I will be the first to tell you that I was concerned after the first half as to how the Lions would respond after the interceptions. As the game went on, I still knew in the back of my mind that this team is capable of moving the ball whenever they wanted, because Stafford is that good. In years past, the Lions would have folded up shop after the pick six and succumbed to a poor Rams team. Now, after the last couple of seasons, I believe this team can come back from any obstacle and always have a shot at winning. That is due in large part to Stafford being a mature player with the weapons around him to march down the field at will.
The best part of the opener was how the Lions’ defense controlled the Rams’ running game and wreaked havoc on Sam Bradford (who did play a good game for his part). The largest criticism of last year’s Lions was how porous the run defense was. Steven Jackson has had a few good games against the Lions in the past, but he was nowhere to be found on Sunday. Ndamukong Suh and company really shut Jackson down and forced the Rams to abandon the run in the second half, making the team very one-dimensional. If the defensive line can continue to play like that, the Lions instantly become a team that can make a special run this season.
That run starts by traveling across the country to play the San Francisco 49ers, who ended the Lions undefeated start to last season. Obviously, the media is focusing on the Jim Harbough/Jim Schwartz handshake incident from last year, but the Lions have moved on while the 49ers continue to bring it up (see their owner cracking jokes at a fan rally). The Niners steamrolled the Packers in Lambeau last week, and seem to be the best team in the NFC early on. This is a game for the Lions to see where they stand against one of the best teams in the league and their toughest non-divisional game of the season.
The 49ers added plenty of help for Alex Smith in the offseason, with signings of Brandon Jacobs to help Frank Gore, and wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to compliment Vernon Davis and Crabtree. The Lions front four must contain the running game again this week against two tough backs in Gore and Jacobs. If Detroit can force Alex Smith to throw the ball a lot, I would feel better. While the Lions’ secondary is questionable and banged up, the hopeful return of Chris Houston should help them, adding more depth against San Francisco’s deep receiving corps. The Lions’ offense will also face perhaps its toughest challenge of the season against a great 49er defense, led by Patrick Willis. The offensive line must be able to give Stafford time to get the ball out to his receivers. I would like to see the run game stay right where it is, with Kevin Smith getting chunks at a time. But, in the end, this is a game where Calvin Johnson must be the force he is and exert his will on the Niners’ corners. Stafford has to find him consistently to force the defense to adjust and allow Burleson, Pettigrew, Scheffler, and Young a better chance to make plays underneath.
All-in-all, I, as a diehard Lions fan, am not expecting Detroit to win this game. It is a very tough matchup in week 2 without a healthy secondary the full running back corps. The key is Stafford once again, and if he continues to show the moxie and poise he showed last week, then the Lions have a shot at the upset to set themselves on the road to another great season.