Another third-quarter disaster crushes Lions in loss to 49ers

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
From left, Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow (77), offensive tackle Taylor Decker, and running back Kerryon Johnson sit on the bench during the second half.

Santa Clara, Calif. — The Detroit Lions nearly pulled off another signature fourth-quarter rally against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, but the team was unable to overcome a disastrous third quarter in the 30-27 defeat.  

In the closing minutes, rookie safety Tracy Walker stepped in front of a third-down pass  and returned it deep into San Francisco territory, setting up a potential game-winning score. But a penalty away from the ball negated the stunning turnover and leaves the Lions with stinging memories of a second straight third-quarter meltdown.

"We had some breakdowns in all three phases," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "We had some opportunities in all three phases, too, but we didn't capitalize on them. That's the biggest thing right now, we have to really capitalize on those opportunities to turn things in our favor, instead of just giving them up."

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Coming out of the locker room down 13-10, the Lions allowed 49ers return man D.J. Reed to break free for a 101-yard touchdown return to open the half. Reed was flagged for grabbing a face mask at the end of the return, negating the score, but the 49ers needed just four plays to get back into the end zone, scoring on an 11-yard throw from quarterback Jimmy Garopollo to tight end Garrett Celek.

"Everyone held their blocks," Reed said about his return. "For me, it was easy, and anybody could have done what I did."

BOX SCORE: 49ers 30, Lions 27

The Lions looked for a quick counter, thanks to a 45-yard return by Jamal Agnew and a pair of sizeable gains on the ground by running backs LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson, which put the team in the red zone. But back-to-back holding calls against Taylor Decker and rookie Frank Ragnow drove the offense back and forced the team to settle for a 43-yard Matt Prater field goal, temporarily cutting the edge back to one score, 20-13.

The two teams traded punts with Detroit’s effort pinning San Francisco at its own 3. That’s where disaster struck.

The 49ers quickly worked out of the shadow of their own goal line with a 11-yard, play-action pass to Celek before running back Matt Breida burst through the line on consecutive carries, gaining 20 on the first, before a 66-yard touchdown romp.

Multiple Lions appeared to miss opportunities to get Breida down, but defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, as the first line of defense, took the blame. 

Three plays, 97 yards, backs nearly broken.

"I didn't give my team a chance today," Francois said. "I didn't give my team a chance to fight an equal battle with them."

To make matters worse, the Lions lost All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay to a concussion during the disastrous quarter.

The third-quarter struggles come just six days after the Lions allowed the New York Jets to put up 31 points in the third quarter of Detroit's 48-17 season-opening loss

The lopsided affair was more even through two quarters. Sure, the Lions still had issues, particularly in coverage, but the offensive play-calling and execution certainly looked improved.

After allowing the 49ers to drive into the red zone on their opening possession, the defense held, thanks to back-to-back sacks by linebackers Jarrad Davis and Devon Kennard. That led to a 45-yard field goal by Robbie Gould, giving the 49ers the early lead.

Detroit responded with a seven-play, 69-yard scoring series. The drive was capped with a well-designed, play-action pass to Kenny Golladay after the receiver had motioned inside, suggesting a run.

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Quarterback Matthew Stafford hit Golladay running free into the second level and the receiver did the rest, impressively spinning through a tackle along the sideline before extending the ball across the goal line before landing out of bounds for a 30-yard touchdown.

"He's seen a lot of different looks, he's seen a lot of different coverages than he has in the past," Patricia said. "I think he's doing a good job of just trying to fight through all of those situations."

Detroit’s lead was short-lived as the 49ers drove 88 yards on 13 plays. In the red zone, cornerback Teez Tabor blew his coverage assignment as 49ers running back Kendrick Bourne leaked uncovered out of the backfield for 4-yard touchdown.

Tabor declined comment about his role on the play after the game. 

The two sides each added a field goal in the second quarter, Gould with a 42-yarder and Prater making from 43 in the half’s final seconds to send the teams into the break, 13-10.

After pushing the advantage to 14 in the third quarter, the 49ers extended it to 17 with another Gould field goal with 11:25 remaining.

That’s when the Lions started to chip away.

Detroit cut the deficit to 10 thanks to a 5-yard touchdown grab by Marvin Jones. That was set up by a 67-yard catch-and-run by Golden Tate.

Prior to Tate’s reception, Blount was ejected from the game for leaving the bench and entering the field of play during an altercation near the sidelines.

"He knows better," Patricia said. "He knows he can't do that." 

Blount left the locker room shortly after the final whistle and declined comment on his actions. 

After the defense forced the 49ers to go three-and-out, Agnew reversed field on a punt return and found a lane for a 73-yard touchdown, but the play was negated by not one, but two blatant blocks in the back. That didn’t stop Stafford from leading the Lions on a 79-yard scoring drive. A 15-yard scoring strike to tight end Michael Roberts made it 30-27 with 3:27 remaining.

Walker’s interception, returned to the 7-yard line, looked to put the Lions in position to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but Quandre Diggs was flagged for holding tight end George Kittle away from the ball.

"(It's) frustrating because I didn't think it was the right call," Diggs said. "I don't think you make that call at the end of the game away from the ball, in clutch time. You don't make that call. And, you know, I'm not going to get fined for it, but I'm not happy with the call.

"The (official) who is supposed to make that call, he said he didn't make the call. I think that says enough."

The Lions still managed to force the 49ers to punt when Kennard dropped Garoppolo for a sack on third down just after the two-minute warning.

That gave Detroit the ball back at its own 16 with 1:08 remaining, but the miracle wasn’t to be. Three straight incompletions ended the possession, allowing Garoppolo to take a knee to run out the clock.

Patricia took little joy in the moral victory of his team battling back from 17 down in the final quarter. 

"To be honest with you, it's about winning," Patricia said. That's really all that matters, it's about winning. I have to coach better. We have to go out and execute better. "

Stafford completed 34 of 53 passes (64.2 percent) for 347 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions. He did lose a fumble in the second quarter that resulted in a 49ers field goal. 

Tate paced the Lions with seven catches for 109 yards and Golladay added six for 89, plus his TD. 

The Lions return home next week to face the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football.