The Watchtower: Lions at Bears

>> 9.29.2009

In last week's installment of The Watchtower, I thumbed my nose at some who said this type of breakdown had nigh-insurmountable statistical limitations. While I acknowledging that the limitations are real, I argued that careful extension of the sample size, and intelligent subjective interpretation, could coax worthwhile predictive information from the limited data.

There are a couple of key words there: "careful", and "intelligent".  Faced with a dearth of information on Redskins' DC Greg Blache's playcalling and schemes, I used data from his days as Dick Jauron’s DC in Chicago, as well as a 2008 game between the Rams and Redskins (that occurred after Linehan had been fired). I also made an error in calculating a couple of the averages on Linehan's data--so not only was I working from a shaky set of data, I fumbled the calculator work.  Here's what I predicted on the Lions offense versus the Redskins defense:

Regardless of talent or execution, Greg Blache's philosophy of a strong front four and committment to run-stopping disproportionately slows Scott Linehan's balanced offense.

Oops. What actually happened was that the Lions ran all over the Redskins, carrying 36 for 154 yards; a stout 4.28 per-carry average. In the two-and-a-half quarters that Kevin Smith played, he gouged the Redskins for 101 yards on only 16 tries; that's an astounding 6.31 yards per carry.  This was the exact opposite of the result that I predicted.

However, the conclusion I came to for the overall game wasn't too far off:

The most likely scenario is an absolutely brutal game, a physical brawl where both teams try but fail to control the ball with the running game, sacks and turnovers abound, penalty flags fall from the sky like rain . . . and the team whose quarterback performs the best wins.

It certainly was an ugly game, and quite physical. Sacks and turnovers not so much (2 sacks for each team, 1 turnover for Washington and none for Detroit (!)), but the penalties were obnoxious: 17 penalties were called, for 155 yards. I'm going to call last week's Watchtower a general success, but a cautionary tale against making unsupported conclusions--and screwing up the numbers!

Unfortunately, this week poses another problem: Bears OC Ron Turner spent 1997-2004 as the head coach of the Fighting Illini--meaning there's a big gap in his NFL track record. Fortunately, his 1996 Bears (yes, Turner's been the Bears OC twice) did face off against Gunther Cunningham's Chiefs, so we have one good data point. As for more?

Ron Turner's coaching "tree" isn't as clearly deliniated as most. He appeared on the NFL scene as Bears OC, after only one year as San Jose State's head coach.  Then, he coached Illinois for many years, only to come back as Bears OC--both times, he served under defensive-minded head coaches; there was never any NFL mentor/mentee relationship.

A little Googling reveals that he was an assistant to Ted Tollner at USC, and got the SJS gig after serving as OC to Denny Green at Stanford. This places him in a conservative branch of the Air Coryell tree, away from the Martz/Gillman/Saunders group; a twig of the Zampese/Turner branch. Wait, Turner?  Yes: NORV Turner.  Ron and Norv Turner are brothers.

Obviously, the two men aren't interchangable.  So, I'm going to avoid drawing any firm conclusions from the one true data point we have. However, as we see above, Norm studied under different coaches from the Air Coryell tree, and both men prefer to combine power running with downfield throwing.  Norv has coached in-division against Gunther twice, in 2000 with the Chargers, and in 2004 with the Raiders. Therefore, we have four data points for Norv, and I will look at them--KNOWING that it's just an exercise in curiosity.


In 1996, Ron Turner's Bears faced Gunther Cunningham's Chiefs, and it was an ugly sight. Turner's offense was the 26th-ranked scoring O in the league, mustering only 17.7 points per game. The passing offense was anemic, only 5.78 yards per attempt, and the rushing offense wasn't any great shakes either, with only 3.64 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the 11th-best scoring defense, allowing an average of 18.8 ppg. I'd expect the Bears to underperform their average pretty significantly--and they did, scoring only 10 points. They passed a little bit above expectations, 6.4 YpA, but the rushing was completely denied: a microscopic 1.8 YpC (19 carries for 35 yards!). That's certainly a good start, but the discrepancy in talent is huge.

In 2000, Norv Turner's Chargers played the Chiefs twice--and interestingly, those Chargers were also ranked 26th in the league in scoring offense, averaging 16.8 points scored. Passing for only 5.6 yards per attempt, and rushing for only 3.03 yards per carry, the '00 Chargers weren't much to write home about.  Gunther's Chiefs weren't quite as fearsome as the 1996 unit, though, ranked 19th and allowing 22.1 ppg.

Interestingly, the end result was exactly the same: the Chargers scored 10 points. The run/pass effect was reversed from the '96 Bears matchup, though.  Passing was depressed, with a really brutal 4.83 YpA, but rushing got a slight bump, up to 3.5 YpC.  Note the sack total: 6 sacks for -31 yards! In the second '00 match between Norv and Gunther, the result was largely similar, but with the run/pass effectiveness flipped again: 17 points scored, 5.9 YpA, 2 picks, 2.36 YpC.  Again with the disruption: 3 fumbles, all lost, 2 picks, and another half-dozen sacks for 28 yards lost!

Now, in 2004, the execution shoe was on the other foot: Norv's Raiders were the 18th-ranked scoring offense, 20.0 ppg, but the Chiefs were a wretched scoring defense, ranked 29th, allowing 27.2 per game.  Predictably, the Raiders outperformed their season average, scoring 27 points.  The Raiders passed all over the Chiefs, with 8.37 YpA, but running was depressed by half a yard per carry (3.44 YpC vs. 3.96 avg.).  Oddly, no turnovers were generated, but the Raiders were sacked 3 times for -10 yards.

Finally, on Christmas Day 2004, the Raiders travelled to Kansas City, MO., for an exceedingly similar (yet, again, run-pass flip-flopped) result: 30 points, 5.86 YpA, 4.55 YpC. So, IF we consider Ron and Norv Turner interchangable--and we don't--then given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3 appears to match expectations versus a Turner Bros. Coryell-style downfield passing offense (albeit while generating very high sack and turnover numbers).  That is to say there is no systemic advantage or disadvantage for either team.


The study of Scott Linehan versus Lovie Smith is an interesting one; half of the matchups involved the St. Louis Rams--but one was with Lovie as defensive coordinator, and the other was with Linehan as head coach!  Lovie is another Tampa Two disciple, though he seems to run a slightly more aggressive variant than Dungy did in Tampa--and especially more than Dungy has in Indy.

Smith has been by far the most successful of the many T2 disciples --arguably, the only one to be successful--in recreating the suffocating Tampa Bay defense. The talent he's consistently accumulated on the DL, and the born-to-play-T2-MLB Brian Urlacher, has allowed the Bears to be consistently placed among the better defenses in the NFL.

The first matchup, in 2003, Pitted Linehan's Vikings against Smith's Rams. As we all know, the '03 Vikings were potent: the 6th-ranked scoring offense (26.0 ppg).  Passing was strong at 7.6 YpA, and they were absolutely totin' it with 4.75 YpC.  St. Louis' defense was ranked 17th, allowing 20.5 PpG. Astonishingly, they held the Vikes to just 17 points, depressing yards-per-attempt by three quarters of a yard, and sacking Culpepper a breathtaking 8 times for -54 yards. Uh-oh.

There was one bright spot: The Vikings ran it 26 times for 189 yards; that's a walloping 7.27 yards per carry.  Presumably, the 2 lost fumbles and thrown pick derailed (or made irrelevant) that ground game success.

In '04, it was nearly the exact same Vikings squad: 6th-best scoring offense, 25.3 ppg, 8.18 YpA, and 4.71 YpC. However, Lovie's Bears were better than his Rams: 13th best in points allowed, with 20.7 per game. This time, thought, we see a lot more consistent result: the the Vikings slightly outperformed their average, scoring 27 points, passing for a mind-numbing 11.61 YpA, and still carrying for a solid 4.04 YpC. Even though the passing game was working so well--averaging a first down every attempt--Linehan kept the playcalling very balanced, 23 runs to 31 passes. Sacks were cut in half (to a still-significant 4-for-10); the Vikes lost two of four fumbles.

The second 2004 game, the Vikes mildly outperformed their season per-play averages in passing (8.45 YpA, 8.18 avg.), and wildly outperformed in rushing (6.64 YpC, 4.71 avg.). However, all of this success only led to 14 points.  How?  The three interceptions, 1 lost fumble, and 5 sacks for -34 probably had something to do with it.  I’m sure the difference between September in the Metrodome and December at Soldier Field also came into play.

Finally, the most interesting data point. Linehan's Rams faced off against Lovie's Bears in 2006, when the Rams were the 10th-best scoring offense (22.9 ppg), averaging 6.69 YpA, and running at a 4.26 YpC clip. The Super-Bowl bound Bears defense was ranked 3rd in the NFL, allowing a meager 15.9 points per game. What happened? The Rams scored 27 points, of course! Before we get excited, 14 of those came in the fourth quarter of a 42-27 blowout . . . clearly, this scoring performance is an outlier.

What is relevant, though, is the YpA (6.47) and YpC (4.59) being right in line with the season averages, despite a significant talent deficit. Again, we see 3 sacks for -24 yards, one fumble forced, and one interception.

All of this leads me to a definitive conclusion: Given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring.

I'd love to say that the positive momentum of the win over the Redskins will lift the Lions to a second consecutive victory . . . and hey, the last time the Lions got two wins in a row was October 2007, at Solider Field! But I'm afraid that the most likely outcome involves Stafford getting rattled by the Bears, getting sacked 3-to-5 times and surrendering at least two turnovers.  Despite moving the ball as well as they have all season, the Lions should score below expectations (currently 19, though a 3-game average is nearly useless).  This is much less well defined, but my guess is that the Bears will match or slightly outperform their scoring expecations (also currently 19, equally shakily), with one dimension of the offense working much better than the other.

All is not lost!  There is still hope, especially given the all the unknowns surrounding the Bears' O vs. the Lions' D.  But I'm calling for another low-scoring, ugly, sack-and-turnover filled game, and a probable (but probably narrow) Bears victory.


Matt,  September 29, 2009 at 5:28 PM  

This is the biggest question-mark game so far. Does the improving Matt Stafford show up? Which Jay Cutler shows up? Does Matt Forte show up at all? How badly are the Bears missing Urlacher? Ditto for the Lions and Sims? Can the Lions O-line handle the Bears D-line? Can the Bears secondary handle the Johnson Brothers? Will Silent Bob be good to go and, if so, how much?

The biggest one, however, is probably "Can the Lions win on the road?" I can't wait to find out.

Jeremy,  September 29, 2009 at 10:48 PM  

Great work again, even if it did make me sad.

But based on those numbers, we may still be able to run the ball. I expect Linehan to game plan much like he did in week 2; run like crazy and try to avoid all the nasty things that happen when we throw the ball (sack, INT).

Ty,  September 30, 2009 at 12:29 PM  


The Bears are still totally unknown to me. If you told me the Bears are going to go 11-5 and win a wild card spot, I could see it. If you told me the Bears are going to go 6-10, and Lovie Smith would be hearing calls for his job, I could see it.

This is going to be what some on Twitter are calling a "GPS Game"--after it, we'll know exactly where the Lions are at.


Ty,  September 30, 2009 at 12:50 PM  


Yeah, I don't think there's any doubt that if we're gashing them for 6+ yards per carry, we won't be throwing it very much. It'll be interesting to see exactly how the offensive linemen handle the Marinelli "skinny penetration" approach; they practiced against it for years . . . it might well be that we have a big-time run-blocking advantage.


Matt,  October 1, 2009 at 2:11 PM  

Ty, absolutely on the GPS thing. Beating the Redskins was awesome, but they obviously stink this year and that game didn't give us a good gauge of the '09 Lions (other than that they are better than the '08 Lions :).

The big question with the Bears this season was whether Cutler could be as successful with their receivers as he was with Denver's. The last two games have shown that he's the type of QB that elevates the players around him. He's making at least minor stars out of Hester, Bennett, and Knox and finally started finding potential stud TE Greg Olsen last week. If Forte regains his rookie form and they successfully patch the huge hole left by Urlacher, I think they'll be play-off contenders (let's hope this all takes one more week :).

I'm hoping for the Bears to continue to be the Lions' road patsy. Not only were they our last road victory in 2007, they were the team that allowed the Lions to snap their 24-game road losing streak back in 2004. If Forte continues to struggle and Cutler has another hiccup game, another win is certainly possible (man that feels good to say). An honest to god winning streak combined with a road victory would do wonders for team psyche.

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