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Niyo: At 0-2, Lions have nothing to show but a pileup of breakdowns

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Santa Clara, Calif. — They almost got away with one. But instead the Lions came home from San Francisco with nothing, and that’s something that shouldn’t sit well with anyone in Detroit.

Not the fans who’ve seen too many of these losses to count. Not the head coach who is just now learning what it’s like to be counted out of the playoffs a couple weeks into a season. And certainly not the players who probably needed a long flight home from the West Coast just to count all the ways they cost themselves a much-needed road win Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

“There’s a million plays throughout the game that we can clean up and be better,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said, and that only felt like a slight exaggeration after an effort that was once again marred by critical breakdowns in all three phases of the game.

There were unnecessary penalties by the defensive and special-teams units that robbed the Lions of touchdowns, another careless turnover by the quarterback that ultimately handed the 49ers the winning margin, and even some questionable clock management before halftime from Matt Patricia that led to second-guessing.

But there was no questioning how it all felt when it was over, after the Lions’ last-minute drive ended with three straight incompletions and then the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo took a knee, letting out a sigh of relief after nearly gifting the Lions a win late in the fourth quarter.

Celluloid-induced nausea

“We’re going to watch this film,” tight end Luke Willson said, “and be a little sick to our stomachs.”

They’ll have plenty of company once they do, obviously.

And that might be the most alarming part of the Lions’ 0-2 start to this season, how widely the blame can be spread around for Patricia’s team.

Offense, defense, special teams? Check, check and check. Coaching? Sure. Discipline? That, too.

LeGarrette Blount got ejected for coming off the sideline to deck a 49ers defender who’d taken a free shot at his quarterback in the fourth quarter. And yet that almost felt like an afterthought in this one, there was so much else going haywire on the field.

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The Lions gave up a 101-yard kickoff return. They allowed another touchdown run of 60-plus yards, this time making Matt Breida look like Frank Gore or Roger Craig. And they committed 10 penalties that cost them 105 yards officially, but also negated a punt return for a touchdown and the potential game-winning interception return with just over 2 minutes left.

Even Patricia’s decision to holster all three of his timeouts at the end of the first half, burning about 30 seconds of clock with the 49ers backed up against their own goal line seemed to backfire Sunday. Patricia described his clock management as “perfect” but that notion was perfectly debatable at the time, and certainly afterward.

But so is this whole transition the Lions are undergoing, for that matter.

Patricia hasn’t managed to fix a thing that was broken seven months after taking on the Lions’ job. And the parts that didn’t need fixing, now they’re rattling with loose screws as well. And that’s a troubling notion as his team heads home to face the New England Patriots, of all teams, on national television Sunday night.

Defense rests

The run defense was a problem before, and it still is. Through two games, opponents have piled up 359 yards rushing, thanks in large part to two touchdown runs of 62 and 66 yards — one by the Jets, and another by the 49ers — that resulted from similar breakdowns in gap responsibilities.

“Not good enough,” Patricia said. “I’ve got to coach it better. I gotta get it stopped. We gotta stop doing that. So that’s on me.”

It all is, and he knows it, no matter who is at fault, be it the coordinators or the position coaches or the players. Or even the officials, as safety Quandre Diggs felt was the case on that defensive holding flag he drew — the one that rescued Garoppolo from Lions rookie Tracy Walker’s interception return just before the 2-minute warning.

“Awful,” Diggs said. “That's what I thought of it.”

Maybe so, but whatever you think of the way this one ended, it’s awfully hard to ignore the Lions’ own shortcomings.

Particularly when it comes to the franchise quarterback Patricia inherited, the one who’s being paid to cover up the deficiencies elsewhere on the roster.

Stafford shouldered the blame after that opening-night debacle in Detroit when he tossed four interceptions. And his frustration was evident again Sunday as the game started to slip away again in a sloppy third quarter, much like that critical first-half fumble he committed that led directly to a San Francisco field goal.

Facing third-and-8 at Detroit’s 23-yard line, Stafford dropped back to pass, waiting for Marvin Jones to work a double move on the left sideline. Once Jones had, breaking past the desperate grasp of 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, Stafford let it fly.

But the pass again sailed too far — he’d airmailed Jones in the end zone to end the first half as well — and the Lions were forced to punt. Stafford reacted with dismay, yanking the chinstraps off his helmet and looking skyward as he shook his head in disgust.

A million plays? No, not there weren’t that many. But this was one of those Stafford was lamenting later, as he stood at the postgame podium and admitted, “It starts with me being as good as I can be.”

Stafford played one of his worst games in the Monday night opener, throwing gasoline on a tire fire as the Lions got embarrassed by the Jets at Ford Field. Sunday, he was better, finishing the day 34-of-53 for 347 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But aside from the fumble, there were too many errant throws and a handful of deep balls that went for naught. Those were the kind of plays that kept the Lions afloat last season.

“They’re huge, right?” Stafford said. “I gotta hit those, and we’ve got to find a way to connect on them. (Jones) is doing a great job of getting open down the field. I just gotta give him chances.”

That the Lions had a chance in this one could be viewed as a positive step after the way they came unraveled in the opener. Maybe even proof that Patricia's tough-love training camp will pay dividends. ("At the end of the game, we were running," the coach said, lauding his team's conditioning.) But the Lions needed more than a moral victory Sunday. They needed a win in the worst way.

Teams that start a season 0-2 in the NFL go on to miss the playoffs nearly 90 percent of the time. And while Patricia might not know what that feels like — the Patriots never started 0-2 in his 14 years in New England — he surely knows the challenge ahead. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are coming to town — and coming off a loss. And with the Lions limping home – they played without Ezekiel Ansah and T.J. Lang Sunday, then lost Darius Slay to a concussion — the task seems even more daunting.

For a team that can’t seem to get out of its own way at the moment, Sunday’s loss was another reality check.

“It’s just not good enough,” Patricia said.

At this point, his team isn’t, either.