NFC North: Kyle Vanden Bosh

Matthew StaffordThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Lions and Matthew Stafford couldn't rely on their usually potent passing offense.
SAN FRANCISCO -- I know what you're thinking, at least some of you. You want to know why a team with the best receiver in football would run almost as many times as they passed in a nationally televised game against one of the NFL's best teams. If the Detroit Lions were going down Sunday night to the San Francisco 49ers, as most of us assumed they would, shouldn't they have done so by firing their best weapons?

It sounds logical on the surface, but let's make something clear. The Lions didn't lose at Candlestick Park because they ran the ball 26 times and targeted Calvin Johnson and his fellow receivers on only 18 plays. If anything, the Lions absorbed a 27-19 loss because they couldn't run it better.

What we saw Sunday night was basic football. No offense, not even if it's led by a receiver like Johnson and a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, can impose its strength when a talented defense like the 49ers is aligned and determined to stop it. And just as they did in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers used a deep zone to take away the Lions' downfield passing game.

Theoretically, the Lions had a reasonable counter in place from a football perspective. In practice, it just wasn't good enough. They managed 82 yards on those 26 rushing plays, including just 53 yards on 16 carries from starter Kevin Smith.

"We needed to be able to run," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "They were taking the approach of playing deep safeties and taking away the big play, which they were able to do. When people do that, you need to be able to hurt them underneath and hurt them with the run. I thought at times we ran the ball well. Sometimes a one- or two-yard run was a good play."

What those runs did, however, was leave the Lions with almost no margin of error. Disembodied as they were from their preferred method of scoring -- shots into the end zone via the passing game -- the Lions looked like the proverbial fish out of water. They couldn't penetrate the 49ers' red zone their first nine possessions and settled for five field goal attempts by Jason Hanson. (He converted four.)

"We didn't play our best game tonight in any phase," Schwartz said. But what he meant, of course, was that the Lions didn't play a perfect game. And that's what they needed against a team that has now dispatched two of the NFL's best offenses, the Lions' and Packers', in impressive fashion.

"We lost to a good team tonight," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "They were 13-3 last year. They were a couple plays away from the Super Bowl. We had to play our best football to beat this team and we didn't."

Said center Dominic Raiola: "That's one of the best teams in the NFC."

[+] EnlargeKevin Smith
AP Photo/Tony AvelarKevin Smith managed only 53 yards on 16 carries against San Francisco.
I don't blame the Lions a bit for their approach. If you want to hold them accountable, you can wonder if they did enough this offseason to account for the shaky status of their top two runners, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Best has not yet been cleared for contact nearly a year after a season-ending concussion, and Leshoure has now served a two-game NFL suspension.

Would Leshoure and/or Best have made a difference Sunday night? I'm not sure. The Lions' defense wasn't able to stop the 49ers when it became a one-score game in the fourth quarter, allowing three consecutive third-down completions from Alex Smith to Michael Crabtree on the game-clinching drive.

This much was clear: the running game the Lions put on the field Sunday night wasn't good enough. Johnson said the 49ers never came out of their two-deep look, often using a "three-cloud" zone that in essence calls for a cornerback to join both safeties to cover deep thirds of the field. It all but shuts down deep routes but leaves big portions of the field available underneath. Stafford wound up throwing only six passes that traveled farther than 10 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information, completing two. Johnson had only 46 receiving yards before the Lions opened it up to start the fourth quarter.

"[The Lions' run game] didn't have any effect at all," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "We were able to keep two safeties deep at all times. We didn't have to get too nosy in the run game. Our front seven, front six, did a good job of stopping the run with a light box and that is what we have to do versus teams like Green Bay and Detroit, teams that like to throw the ball a lot."

The 49ers might not have adjusted even if the Lions had been more dynamic in their running game, although the Lions' offense might have scored more points. In the end, however, I don't think anyone should fret too much. There aren't many NFL defenses like the 49ers', which can stop a running game, no matter who the opposing runner is, by using six men in the box.

I suppose we could conclude that the Lions demonstrated they're not ready to be measured among the NFL's best teams, but was anyone really saying that before Sunday night? I don't think so.

"That's a good team," Schwartz said, adding later: "We lost by one score on the road, even considering we didn't play well."

The only way the Lions were going to win Sunday night is if they played perfectly. They didn't. Their counter to the 49ers' defense wasn't good enough. They were outmatched, something I think the 49ers will do to many opponents this season. So it goes.

Detroit's active offseason has infused a new level of urgency among players, center Dominic Raiola told local reporters Thursday.

"I think it's very encouraging," Raiola said. "What they're doing upstairs is showing us they're going to make a push to win right now. We realize it's only the middle of March. But we in the locker room feel the importance of the moves they've made. I guess it's more urgent with the kinds of moves they've made. Not moves that are geared toward the future. They're geared toward right now."

Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, receiver Nate Burleson, defensive tackle Corey Williams and backup quarterback Shaun Hill have all added credibility at their respective positions. Is that improvement enough to challenge for an NFC North division title?

Maybe not in 2009. But, receiver Calvin Johnson said, players feel confident in franchise's direction.

"If we have a good draft and start putting pieces together, little by little [we'll get there]," Johnson said. "Yes, you want to win the Super Bowl every year. But you've got to take baby steps first."

Johnson, meanwhile, said he spent the early part of his offseason working out with a personal trainer to improve the strength around his knees. The exercises were an attempt to avoid what Johnson termed "nagging" injuries that plagued him in 2009.

"The big thing for me this year is to stay healthy," Johnson said.
Detroit literally signed dozens of veteran free-agent players last offseason, searching desperately in every corner for players to upgrade its moribund roster. I didn't think the Lions had any other option at the time, but it goes without saying that I like what they're doing this year much better.

Nate Burleson
Kirby Lee/US PresswireNate Burleson looks like a clear upgrade as the Lions' No. 2 receiver.
They're on the verge of acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland, a clear upgrade over their existing personnel. Coach Jim Schwartz showed up on the doorstep of free agent defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who would give the Lions a more credible pass-rusher than they have had in several years. And early Friday morning, they signed receiver Nate Burleson to a five-year, $25 million contract that includes $11 million in guaranteed money.

NFC North fans might have lost track of Burleson after he signed with Seattle in 2006, and he's since rehabilitated a torn anterior cruciate ligament and admittedly produced some uneven performances.

But don't confuse him with the lackluster Bryant Johnson, whom the Lions tried to insert as their No. 2 receiver last season. Burleson is a hard worker with sure hands and, at 29, has a long career ahead of him. Trust me when I tell you he will know how to take advantage of the mismatches afforded by the presence of Calvin Johnson.

I realize there are some reasons the Seahawks weren't interested in keeping Burleson after his contract expired. Ultimately, his career in Seattle was disappointing. He caught 83 passes in his first three seasons before making 63 catches in 2009.

But for the Lions, this offseason isn't about finding the perfect player at each position. Free agency doesn't allow for that. Every player available has some imperfections. What it should be about, however, is Detroit limiting its acquisitions to players who make it better -- and not those who are simply different than the incumbents. A solid 2009 draft class has afforded the Lions some flexibility in these matters, and it could be compounded by another successful effort next month.

Is Burleson worth $11 million in guaranteed money? I'm not sure. But in an uncapped environment, who cares? Here's the better question: Are the Lions better today with him on their team? Without a doubt -- and we haven't always been able to say that about a Lions acquisition in recent years.