Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images
It began with a fourth-down stop. Then Jimmy Garoppolo fumbled the first offensive snap of the season.
Early chaos didn’t much matter for the 49ers. They project to be among the NFL’s elite. The Lions? Not so much.
What was evident after the Lions took an early, 7-0 lead, is that the opening minutes were the exception to the rule, at least for most of the game. The 49ers absolutely mauled Detroit on Sunday, just as pretty much everyone expected, en route to a 41-33 win which went on a bit too long, and then nearly became disastrous.
This was without Raheem Mostert for the overwhelming majority of the game. He sustained a knee injury in that first series and did not return, leaving Elijah Mitchell to run absolutely riot.
What on earth was that?
This was a piece largely about all the firsts in this game, with Trey Lance’s debut, Elijah Mitchell taking the Lions for a ride, DeMeco Ryans having a shaky debut etc. before the fourth quarter.
Well, let’s stick on that shaky performance from Ryans. The 49ers’ defense, without Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley, just got torched by the Jared Goff-led Lions late in the fourth quarter.
This game was over. Over. Caput. 38-10 at the half.
And then it wasn’t. The Lions scored three times in the second half, with Goff finding D’Andre Swift in the third quarter, then Jamaal Williams and Quintez Cephus in the fourth quarter, both with two point conversions.
The only reason that second touchdown was possible was because George Kittle took an onside kick off the facemask, which the Lions recovered. The Lions managed to score both of those touchdowns without burning any of their timeouts.
And the 49ers seemed like they were going to ice it, too. After a false start, they ran the ball twice to burn two Lions timeouts. Then Jimmy Garoppolo found Deebo Samuel short, who found an opening to run for the first down.
This was it. Nervy, but this was it. And then Samuel fumbled. The Lions recovered. From a blowout, to a stressful, ugly win, to a potential disaster.
The Lions were left with 52 seconds and one timeout to score a touchdown and get a third-straight two-point conversion, in a game in which they were made a joke of by the 49ers.
But finally, the 49ers got it done. A Samson Ebukam stunt inside on fourth down came through to pressure Goff and force an incompletion. This will not be a well-remembered game by the 49ers, and you have to imagine Kyle Shanahan will feel almost nauseous about this near collapse. An easy win was botched, then just barely recovered. All the positivity of the first half was nearly made moot.
When you looked at the 49ers’ running back room, it was abundantly clear that Mitchell’s skillset was the closest match to Raheem Mostert than there’s probably ever been in the Kyle Shanahan era. This scheme is very dependent on backs who can get downhill quickly, aggressively, and without hesitation.
Mitchell is very clearly that. He exploded through the hole on just his third career carry, for a 38-yard touchdown led by crucial blocks from Mike McGlinchey, Daniel Brunskill, Charlie Woerner and Jauan Jennings (who was put in specifically to block).
Another rookie getting in on the action. Elijah Mitchell scampers 38 yards for his first career TD
— KNBR (@KNBR) September 12, 2021
He finished with 104 yards on 19 carries and the aforementioned touchdown. Later in the game, he started to have less success as the Lions bet on the 49ers running the ball, but he showed burst, power, and an ability to successfully fight for extra yards consistently.
Oh and that other rookie, Trey Lance? He got his first touchdown, too, as a passer. After an underwhelming carry, Lance came in for the 49ers in a red zone situation, and found Trent Sherfield, who snatched some ankles en route to his first 49ers touchdown.
Trey Lance just threw the first 49ers touchdown of the season ?
— KNBR (@KNBR) September 12, 2021
Lance didn’t have much success in his limited opportunities outside of the touchdown, though. Every touch was a rushing attempt, and multiple attempts were shut down near the line of scrimmage, with the Lions seemingly preparing for him to be used explicitly as a runner.
Receiver intrigue: Deebo Samuel stuns, and Sherfield plays over Aiyuk
It was a hell of a day for Deebo Samuel. The Lions seemed like they’d never watched tape of the 49ers, or it simply didn’t matter, because the Garoppolo-to-Samuel bread-and-butter play of the play-action to deep in-route was in full effect as Samuel caught a handful of those with discernible ease.
He gashed the Lions time and time and time again en route to one of the greatest season-opening performances from a receiver in 49ers history, finishing with a ridiculous nine catches for 189 yards and one touchdown. Only Anquan Boldin had a better opening game for the 49ers. when he had 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown to open the 2013 season.
Boldin didn’t make this catch, but he also didn’t fumble in that game. Edge to Boldin.
Just an incredible all-around play by Deebo on this 79-yard TD
— KNBR (@KNBR) September 12, 2021
The other leading story in the receiving room was the glaring lack of Brandon Aiyuk. He didn’t come in for the 49ers until their second series, with Trent Sherfield operating as the other starting wide receiver, opposite Samuel.
Could this be hamstring related? Aiyuk was nursing a hamstring injury coming into the week, but practiced in full every day of last week. He also returned a punt, which is a high-risk situation. He was nearly absent in the 49ers’ offense on Sunday, which begs asking whether this was simply a coaching decision, like with Trey Sermon being inactive.
Defensive highs and huge lows, as Verrett leaves in tears
This was initially going to be about how the Lions gashed the 49ers up the middle far too often early on, and how T.J. Hockenson — the Lions’ true No. 1 receiver — got loose with regularity, with seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
But in the fourth quarter, starting corner Jason Verrett — whose career has been wrecked by an almost unfathomable stretch of ACL and Achilles injuries and complications — went down without contact. Verrett’s knee buckled as he backed up, and he went down, clutching at his right leg and immediately started crying. He eventually made his way off the field under his own power, then limped to the locker room and broke down in tears again.
We have no idea what the severity of the injury is, but Verrett’s reaction was not encouraging. For a player who has been through so much and worked so relentlessly to get back to looking like who he used to be, it’s a brutal sign.
The 49ers’ starting corners were supposed to be Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley. Moseley missed out with a knee injury, too, but the team expects he’ll return next week. If Verrett is out for a significant amount of time, the 49ers may have to enter the trade market.
That injury marred what was a defensive performance with so many bright spots. Kentavius Street got his first career sack. Nick Bosa tallied his own, and so, too, did Dee Ford, who consistently bullied Lions backup right tackle Matt Nelson. One of Ford’s pressures, coupled with a ghastly decision and throw from Jared Goff, resulted in a Dre Greenlaw pick-six.
Until that fourth quarter, there was so much for the 49ers to enjoy; now they have to hold their breath and hope the injuries to Mostert and Verrett aren’t serious.