This summer, we're looking closer at what went right and wrong during the 2012 Detroit Lions' season. In the coming weeks, we'll count down the top 10 plays which made a difference in the team's performance and record last season. Today, we begin things with an examination of number 7.
There were plenty of themes from the 2012 Detroit Lions' season, but one of the most important remains discipline. Though the team didn't have as many issues with the dreaded "d word" as they did in 2011, there were enough mistakes to cost them a few games.
Perhaps it was due to the fact that the season was only two weeks old, but discipline issues would hamper the Lions right away in 2012, and cost them a very winnable game against the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. In week one, they got away with three turnovers and managed to defeat the St. Louis Rams. Week two would bring a stronger challenge, however.
Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz spent the better part of preparation time in week two answering questions about "handshake gate," which was the formal nickname given to the 2011 meeting between the teams, which ended in fireworks. Lost in that affair was the exceptional game both teams played, as numerous great plays were made and the winning play was made on a final, last minute drive.
The rematch at Candlestick Park wouldn't disappoint either. San Francisco took the early lead on a touchdown catch by Vernon Davis and looked poised to run away with the game, but the Lions fought back with a pair of field goals and held strong. With the 49ers driving, Detroit appeared to get a defensive stop, but a critical penalty on Drayton Florence for running into the kicker extended San Francisco's drive.
Of course, as had happened many other times, the 49ers made Detroit pay quickly. Frank Gore punched the ball in from the one yard line, and San Francisco led 14-6. That would be the end of scoring until the second half for either team, but the damage had already been done, and a critical shot had been fired into the Lions' fragile psyche.
Despite only being down a touchdown and having a warrior mindset which allowed them to prevail a week earlier despite considerable odds, Detroit wasn't coming back on the road. The mental difference between being down 10-6 or 14-6 is huge for teams, and may be even bigger for the Lions. Florence's error would prove to be costly later in the evening.
In the third quarter, the teams traded field goals again, but the scoreboard would see a lack of touchdowns until the fourth, when Davis found the end zone once more for the critical dagger. Matthew Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew for a futile touchdown late, but enough damage had already been done to render the score insignificant.
Once again, discipline on one single play would prove critical. Had Florence and the Lions held their composure in the first half on David Akers' field goal attempt, the team may have been able to rally again and forge yet another one of their patented comebacks. Without the touchdown, the game would have been much closer at 20-19. Instead, Schwartz was forced to shake hands with Harbaugh again in defeat (with no fireworks) and lament how close the Lions were to scoring a huge, statement making win.
Detroit will not take the next step as a championship football team until they can cut out silly, undisciplined mistakes at important times in the game. Eight penalties cost the Lions in this game, but none was bigger than the earliest one. Holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns in the first half is huge mentally, especially on the road. Cutting back on special teams penalties which result in hidden points and yardage should be a major focus in 2013.
As the Lions would painfully learn in the city by the bay early in 2012, one tiny error in judgment during the first half can make all the difference between winning and losing in the end.
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