The Lions must win Sunday at San Francisco. They are 0-2, and as if that weren't bad enough after seven straight losing seasons, this game will be considered a referendum on their whole football philosophy.
In the off-season, the Lions did two main things to improve: They replaced Mike Martz with Jim Colletto as offensive coordinator, committing to a more balanced offense, and they overhauled their secondary.
Now Martz is the 49ers' offensive coordinator, and his quarterback is J.T. O'Sullivan, whom the Lions let go in free agency. If Martz and O'Sullivan carve up the Lions in a 49ers victory, it will heap even more embarrassment onto an organization that needs no more.
The Lions won't want to make this Us vs. Him. Asked about Martz on Monday, coach Rod Marinelli didn't even use Martz's name in response. He made sure to use Mike Nolan's name, however.
"We're playing the 49ers," Marinelli said. "That's who we're playing. And we're playing that team, a Mike Nolan-coached team. That's who we're playing."
It certainly irritated the Lions that Martz was a larger-than-life figure when he was in Detroit. When Colletto was introduced, he talked about making the game about the players, not the coaches. There were plenty of personality conflicts involving Martz behind the scenes. Note that the Lions have never actually said they fired Martz, though Martz said they fired him.
But the football reasons the Lions parted with Martz, in theory, should be reasons why they should win this game. Martz didn't run the ball. Martz didn't protect the quarterback. Martz didn't protect the defense. Right? Then the Lions should be able to make Martz one-dimensional, get after O'Sullivan and keep the 49ers' defense on the field all day. Right?
Except not much has changed. The Lions defense is still struggling, as it did when Martz was in Detroit, and the Lions are still playing from behind. In each of their first two games, the Lions trailed, 21-0. They had only 12 rushing attempts Sunday against Green Bay.
Martz must be laughing, and the Lions know Martz will be extra-motivated for this one. In 2006, they watched him prepare to face St. Louis, which had just fired him. They put up 34 points, their second-highest total that year, in a losing effort.
Asked if Martz will be extra-motivated, quarterback Jon Kitna said: "I'm sure he will be. But he seemed pretty motivated every week that I was around him."
Asked if Martz had an advantage, with so much knowledge of the Lions' defensive system and personnel, wide receiver Roy Williams said: "He has the advantage. He can manipulate where he wants the ball to go. That's what we did so good last year with the shifting and motion. This year we're wooden Indians. We're just standing there."
Kitna praises O'Sullivan.
"He's one of the best throwers of the football I've ever been around," Kitna said. "He's a really good quarterback. He can throw from any angle. It doesn't matter if he's off-balance, whatever, he gets it out quick."
But Williams thinks the Lions might be able to take advantage of O'Sullivan in his third NFL start.
"I thought he was OK," Williams said. "I think he has that quick release that Martz loves. But he'll make his mistakes. He hasn't played in this league long. So he'll make his mistakes. Hopefully we can confuse him and I teach these guys some things about what they're going to see and we can take some picks to the house."
Others say the Lions can't worry about Martz or O'Sullivan. Hey, they're 0-2.
"Right now," center Dominic Raiola said, "we have our own problems."
Yeah, but Martz is one of them.
SERIES HISTORY: 60th meeting. 49ers lead series, 32-26-1. Lions have lost five straight. Their last victory was in 1995. Their last victory at San Francisco was in 1975. One of the greatest victories in Lions history came at San Francisco in the 1957 playoffs, when the Lions overcame a 20-point deficit to win, 31-27. The Lions went on to win the NFL title. They haven't won one since.
- Cornerback Brian Kelly said the Lions' former Buccaneers were "getting real sick" of being singled out as coach Rod Marinelli's guys and that the Tampa Two defense is constantly evolving. "I mean, look, everybody goes in and says, 'These are Rod's guys' or whatever," said Kelly, who spent the previous 10 years with Tampa Bay, where Marinelli was once the defensive line coach and assistant head coach. "We're football players. We were brought here to play football. So if Rod was here or Rod wasn't here, the type of defense we play just so happens to be the type of defense we played in. I'm ... We're getting real sick of hearing this whole 'Rod's guys.' Everybody in this room is Rod's guys. We've all been in the defense for a while, I've been in the defense for a while, and the defense is forever changing. It's nothing that you can sit there and just close your eyes and know what you're going to do. It's always forever changing. Every year, every week, we're putting in something new.
- The Lions' back-to-back 21-0 deficits aren't just the defense's fault. The offense is allowed to score early, too. "It's not just one side of the ball," center Dominic Raiola said. "It's every person in this locker room. We don't help the defense out by slowing them up by scoring, putting points up. It's 21-0. Everybody says, 'Yeah, it's 21-0.' But yeah, we can help that."
- The Lions are looking to the Giants for inspiration. Last year, the Giants started 0-2 and won the Super Bowl. Both of their losses were bad, and their second came against Green Bay at home. "It's hard to reference this one compared to this place, but if you look back at what the Giants did last year, they started 0-2," Raiola said. "Same thing. I know people are going to say we're not the Giants, this and that. I already know the answers. But it puts some belief back in. When you think about it, the Packers smoked them up there."
- Defensive end Dewayne White says the Lions' struggles aren't the coaches' fault. "It's the players," White said. "You can go out there with the simplest game plan, and if the players go out there and play that game plan play in and play out, you're going to be OK. But when the players mess up, it's going to show up on film."
- Raiola understands the fans' frustration. "You sit around all year and you wait for season and then we give you this," Raiola said. "All I can say is, it's going to get better. I'm going to go out there and play my (butt) off. Everybody else is going to play their (butt) off. We're going to make something happen. You can believe what you want, stay with the team if you want. But that's what I'm talking to the guys in this locker room about. It's about us. The fans have gone through this long enough. We can't promote anything. We've got to show them. We can't just talk about it, what we're going to do to fix it. We've got to go out there and win. That's what they want."
Lions Looking At Running Backs?
The Lions brought in some running backs Tuesday, including Cedric Benson and former NFL most valuable player Shaun Alexander. But despite a report the Lions were about to sign Benson, the Lions were just doing their homework in case they need a running back down the line. They entered into no negotiations.
There is a good chance Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' first-round pick this year, will start at right tackle Sunday at San Francisco. Cherilus replaced veteran George Foster to start the second half in Sunday's 48-25 loss to Green Bay and appeared to play well. Coach Rod Marinelli is unlikely to make any announcement before the game, however.
It seems unlikely Jordon Dizon, the Lions' second-round pick, will see more playing time against the 49ers. The Lions didn't use him more against Green Bay, as they said they would, because they were worried the Packers' personnel switches would confuse the rookie, who would be responsible for making the defensive calls at middle linebacker. You've got to think they would be worried about Mike Martz and all his presnap movement.
- S Gerald Alexander, who suffered a concussion Sunday against Green Bay, did not practice in pads Wednesday. But he said he ran around, had no major symptoms and plans to play Sunday at San Francisco.
- QB Drew Stanton, who suffered a sprained right thumb in the preseason, threw without a splint for the first time Monday. He said he needed to build strength in the thumb but could play if necessary Sunday. He will dress as the third quarterback.
- LB Jordon Dizon is unlikely to play much on defense Sunday unless there is an injury. The Lions didn't play Dizon much against Green Bay because the Packers use a lot of personnel groups and he would have to make the calls in the middle. San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Martz uses a lot of presnap movement.
- TE Casey Fitzsimmons' thumb seems fine. That's big news for the Lions, who don't have another pass-catching tight end now that Dan Campbell is on injured reserve. Michael Gaines and John Owens are known for blocking.
- LB Ernie Sims has had some nagging ankle problems but seems ready to play Sunday.
GAME PLAN: The Lions cannot fall behind, 21-0, for the third consecutive game. They came into the season planning to run the ball more, control the clock and keep their defense off the field. But they have been unable to do that playing from behind. Now that Mike Martz is the 49ers' offensive coordinator, the Lions must attack him the way the other teams attacked them the last two years - leading to Martz's firing. They must make him one-dimensional and sack the quarterback.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Lions pass rush, which has only two sacks in two games, vs. 49ers pass protection, which has allowed 12. With Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator the previous two years, Lions quarterback Jon Kitna took 114 sacks. That's part of the reason the Lions fired Martz. Now Martz is in San Francisco, and the Lions need to take advantage of the things they complained about - seven-step drops, long-developing routes, minimal protections.
Lions' secondary, which has been burned for big plays in the first two games, vs. 49ers QB J.T. O'Sullivan, who threw for 321 yards Sunday at Seattle: The Lions did not re-sign O'Sullivan after last season. Now he has rejoined Martz in San Francisco and taken over the starting job. If O'Sullivan carves up the Lions' new-and-improved secondary, it would be a huge embarrassment.
Lions RB Kevin Smith, who has 88 yards on 26 carries in two games, vs. 49ers run defense, which allowed Seattle's Julius Jones 127 yards on 26 carries Sunday: The Lions want to run the ball to keep Martz's offense off the field and prove a point to him. To do it, they need to keep from falling behind badly, and Smith needs to keep developing early in his rookie season.
INJURY IMPACT: The Lions can't blame their poor start on injuries. They are healthy. The only big loss has been that of TE Dan Campbell, who went on injured reserve with a hamstring problem. S Gerald Alexander suffered a concussion Sunday against Green Bay but said he plans to play this Sunday at San Francisco.