Detroit had many opportunities to take advantage of. Forcing a couple three-and-outs on defense, a fumble recovery off a kickoff, the Lions got life and chances from San Francisco. But in the end, Detroit fell short 27-19 on the road at Candlestick Park.
There were plenty of notes concerning the Lions to take away from this loss. Here are three key things to remember about tonight's loss versus the 49ers.
Plenty of credit needs to be handed to Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers. In one year, Harbaugh has helped transform his team into an NFC powerhouse playing with very few flaws. The 'Niners are arguably right now the biggest threat in the entire league.
On the other side, the Lions again have been exposed by a top-tier opponent. Tonight's game shared many similarities to last year's contest, minus an improved handshake. Detroit played much worse than the final score indicated.
From the start of the game, the Niners just about had their way with the Lions. The 49ers moved the ball with ease and efficiency without any real big gains. Quarterback Alex Smith played his usual managing style with short intermediate throws, and running back Frank Gore found more success with the infamous "wam" play up the middle of the Lions' defense.
The Lions struggled to advance the ball and faced a big collision almost every time a skill player touched the football. Elite teams also must be able to convert offensively on third down and make stops defensively on third down. The Lions failed to do either.
Detroit struggles heavily in grind-out games such as this one. San Francisco seemed comfortable offensively and always flying around on defense. The Lions seemed to be scratching and clawing for every yard, but came away with paydirt against the vicious 49er defense.
If the Lions wish to take the next step, they'll have to be able to make adjustments defensively instead of getting beat by the same play repeatedly. And they must make their opponents pay when breaks happen in their favor.
Matthew Stafford took three-and-a-half quarters to get started last week against the St. Louis Rams. This week, the Lions' franchise quarterback was held completely in check courtesy of the 49ers defense and his own glaring struggles.
Stafford finished the game 19-of-32 for 230 yards, one touchdown and an interception. The offensive line struggled all day against San Francisco's pass rush, but gave Stafford more than enough chances to make a play. Even with time, Stafford and the Lions offense looked completely out of sync.
Receivers were thrown passes behind their bodies, and far too often Stafford scrambled around trying to make a play instead of getting rid of the football. Stafford also missed open targets from keying in on wide receiver Calvin Johnson too often.
Whatever hangover Stafford is suffering from, it must come to an end soon. The future of this team relies on its quarterback, and it cannot survive with him struggling like this. The Lions face an easier defense next week against the Tennessee Titans, and need a much-improved performance from Stafford.
Off a basic eye test, it's simple to compare the Lions from last year to this year. The Lions drafted a few project defenders plus offensive players who might not contribute until next season. The majority of Detroit's growth would rely on the progression of players like Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
Outside of those three, the Lions aren't much improved from 2011.
Detroit is certainly missing the presence of safety Louis Delmas, plus cornerbacks Chris Houston and Bill Bentley. They've lost their three best defensive backs to injury with no certain date of return yet for any players. Even with their presence gone, it's hard to say it would make a significant impact had they played. Delmas and Houston each played last season against the Niners, and still faced a similar loss to this season.
The Lions refuse to draft and address needs, but situations like this is where their major weaknesses are exposed. Detroit isn't in a position to splurge draft picks on players like wide receiver Ryan Broyles when they need a good deal of help on defense. Broyles still is yet to play a down, and the Lions defense continues to suffer.
Delmas and Houston are currently in their contract years with no real certainty of them both returning. The Lions secondary struggles enough already. Losing Delmas and Houston would be another huge loss.