Sunday, September 21, 2008

49ers' Martz makes Lions pay for firing him

I’m going to make a wild guess and say revenge was sweet Sunday for 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

If you want confirmation from the offensive wizard himself, you’ll have to wait until later in the week. He left Candlestick Park after the 49ers’ 31-13 victory over the Detroit Lions without talking to reporters, despite numerous interview requests.

No doubt Martz is keeping a low post-game profile in an effort to deflect attention and give coach Mike Nolan the spotlight. Nice try. Too bad it won’t work.

This was Martz’s day. He beat the team that kicked him out the door after last season, his second as Detroit’s offensive coordinator. During and immediately after Martz’s final season with the Lions, he was crucified for multiple crimes. He didn’t run the ball enough, his critics said. He exposed his quarterback to too many sacks. He forced Detroit’s defense to spend too much time on the field.

Martz was the perfect scapegoat for a franchise that has been historically bad during the reign of president and CEO Matt Millen. And it must have felt great for Martz to beat the Lions with a balanced attack featuring running back Frank Gore.

Martz doesn’t run the ball enough? Gore carried 27 times for 130 yards and a touchdown. In the first half alone, he ran 10 times for 53 yards and a score. Martz will run when he has a good running back – remember Marshall Faulk? – and isn’t forced to play catch-up.

Last year the Lions typically fell behind fast and far. On Sunday, the 49ers built a 21-3 halftime lead. What beautiful irony.

The 49ers’ balanced attack rolled up 370 net yards, 188 passing and 182 rushing.

“We’re starting to move the ball, making it easy,” Gore said. “We’re making it easy. We still have a ways to go. We’re still learning. If everybody gets on the right page, it’s going to be crazy.”

Scoring 64 points in the past two games already qualifies as crazy for the 49ers. Last year they scored 63 points in their first five games.

Quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan played for Martz last season in Detroit. When it comes to understanding Martz’s playbook and methods, he’s still well ahead of his teammates. But they’re starting to catch up.

“They’re understanding that if they do exactly what coach Martz is asking us to do that we’re going to be successful,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a matter of us just getting on the details and getting on exactly what he wants every single play vs. every single coverage, vs. every single front in the run game, protections, understanding that the more we know, the more we understand why, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Martz attacked his old team from all angles, no doubt exposing the defensive weaknesses he came to know all too well the last two seasons. Early in the game, Martz called a reverse to wide receiver Arnaz Battle that gashed the Lions for 18 yards. He dialed up a screen to tight end Vernon Davis for 17 yards. Martz hit the Lions with draws, screens and the usual array of deep ins and seam routes.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to him,” Lions quarterback Jon Kitna said. “He knows what he’s doing. He takes full advantage of his weapons. He picks a starting quarterback and sticks with him. With Mike, you don’t have to look over your shoulder.”

Lions wide receiver Roy Williams refused to answer when asked to “discuss both offenses” that were on display Sunday.

“You can’t compare our offense to their offense,” Williams. “They’ve got the passing mind calling the plays. So you can’t compare our offense to their offense. It makes no sense.”

Linebacker Ernie Sims said the Lions were prepared for Martz’s scheme. Well, sort of.

“We knew what he did in the past couple years he was with us,” Sims said. “Some of that he did, and some of that he didn’t. He put in a little wrinkle. He put in a little wrinkle here and there. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have done our job.”

Martz unveiled one final in-your-face wrinkle in the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-goal at the Lions’ 1.

At first, the 49ers sent their field-goal unit onto the field. But Nolan called timeout to further assess the situation and see exactly how far the 49ers had to go for a touchdown. Nolan said that when he found out it just a yard and not two, as he initially had heard someone on the sidelines yell, he switched gears.

Asked whether Martz made the decision, Nolan quickly said, “No, that’s my decision. Just like when we don’t make it, that’s my decision, too.”

The actual play call was all Martz, and it was a gem.

Martz sent kick returner Allen Rossum into the game and had him line up in the right slot as part of a three-receiver set. The sight of Rossum -- a return man and backup corner -- lining up on offense should have been a bright red flag for the Lions’ defense. They didn’t see it. Martz must have known they were colorblind.

Rossum took a took a handoff from O’Sullivan, shot around left end and dove into the end zone, just inside the front left pylon. Rossum’s touchdown gave the 49ers a 28-3 lead with 9:31 left and, no doubt, gave Martz a little more satisfaction.

Rossum said he had practiced the play “once or twice, if that” and was surprised when Martz told him to go in the game. He said he was “shocked” when he heard the play call.

“It was a great, aggressive call,” O’Sullivan said. “And it worked its way out. Allen made a great play.”

A year ago, Nolan would likely have kicked the field goal in that situation. But a year ago, he didn’t have Martz as his offensive coordinator. Then there’s the fact that the 49ers defense was putting together its best game of the season Sunday.

The Lions came into the game a passing attack ranked No. 8 in the NFL and with two big, talented receivers -- Williams and the 6-foot-5, 239-pound Calvin Johnson. Neither one scored a touchdown. Williams grabbed two passes for 18. Johnson, with cornerback Nate Clements shadowing him much of the day, caught four passes for 40 yards.

“I just wanted to disrupt them and just try to be like a little gnat, not let them get going, try to be as disruptive as I could,” Clements said.

Even if the 49ers hadn’t scored on that fourth-down play, there’s little chance the Lions, pinned deep in their territory, would have done any damage. Besides, this was Martz’s day, whether he ever acknowledges it or not.

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