The 49ers’ 32-17 loss to the Lions on Sunday was epitomized by DuJuan Harris’ up-and-down afternoon.
In the first half, the team’s dynamic new running back darted, ducked and dodged through Detroit’s defensive line for a career-high 74 yards as the 49ers scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives and racked up 16 first downs. In the second half, Harris rushed for minus-one yard.
“It was a tale of two halves,” quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. “We started fast, put some points on the board and had a good first half. We just have to find a way to come out and execute better in the second half. It’s plain and simple. We’d been starting slow and finishing strong, and it was just the opposite today.”
Throughout the season, coach Jim Tomsula has bemoaned the 49ers’ lack of energy on the road, stressing the importance of “coming off the bus” with zeal and starting games quickly.
On Sunday, the 49ers did just that. They took the opening kickoff and, behind long runs by Harris and some tough yards from starting running back Jarryd Hayne, drove to the Lions’ one-yard line before Gabbert hit tight end Vance McDonald with a wide-open touchdown toss.
But at times the 49ers seemed to have too much energy, or at least didn’t know how to focus it. They committed 11 penalties, seven of them offside or neutral-zone infractions on the defense. Tomsula initially thought the tally was six.
“Seven?” he said when told the true number. “There’s no excuse for that. None. We just have to go back and look at that. But honestly, I can’t for the life of me give you an excuse for that because it’s unexcusable.”
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman said Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was savvy with his cadence, which accounted for some of the penalties. He also noted there was some movement by the Lions’ offensive players.
“Yeah, they were doing a little bit of movement,” Bowman said. “The referee said he would look at it and we left it at that.”
The defense, which had played well last week against the Bengals, also was hurt by miscues and missed tackles. After Phil Dawson kicked a 40-yard field goal at the end of the first half, the Lions received the ball with only 35 seconds remaining.
Nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward lost track of Golden Tate on a second-down play, and Stafford hit the receiver for a 36-yard gain, the longest play of the game for Detroit. It set up a last-second field goal to give the Lions a 20-17 lead and they didn’t trail again.
The Lions seemed to adjust well to the early barrage by the 49ers. They began sending an extra defender off the edge of their defensive formation. Runs that gained big chunks in the first quarter and early in the second were stopped for losses or no gain in the second half.
The 49ers had 122 rushing yards at halftime and 121 rushing yards at the end of the game.
Asked if the Lions defense was a step ahead in the second half, Tomsula said: “I don’t know if they were a step ahead. Obviously they were a step ahead on me. We weren’t getting things done the way we needed to. But there’s a couple of plays, they were getting a couple of key plays in the run game that we didn’t get done.”
The 49ers’ inexperienced running backs corps didn’t help. Harris showed a quick first step in the opening half. But he only joined the 49ers on Tuesday and wasn’t up to speed on the 49ers’ pass protection. That meant Harris – who was by far the team’s most effective weapon early on – was stuck on the sideline when the 49ers fell behind in the second half.
On third downs, they mostly used either Hayne, who hadn’t played American football until this season, or Bruce Miller, who is a fullback.
Gabbert finished with 225 passing yards and a 106. 2 rating, his highest of the season. But his second-quarter fumble was costly.
On third down, he was sacked by Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who beat center Daniel Kilgore on the play. The second defender in, linebacker Josh Bynes, knocked the ball free and Detroit recovered at San Francisco’s one-yard line.
On the next play running Joique Bell easily ran in for a touchdown that kept Detroit in the game early on.
“That’s a tough one. That’s on me,” Gabbert said. “I’ve got to find a way to get the ball out. First and foremost is to protect the football in the pocket.”